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Warning Flags for Davis

The governor stands tall in public opinion polls, but storm clouds are building around his prickly style and political timidity.

March 19, 2000

Gov. Gray Davis enjoys strong public support in the polls 15 months into his first term, but his cautious, im perious style of governing is wearing thin in Sacramento. More important, Davis' reluctance to invest surplus state dollars in long-term programs is not serving California well. Although Californians voted for an experienced, middle-of-the-roader in Davis, polls indicated they also were eager for change from the tightfisted ways of 16 years of Republican administrations. But, at times, Davis has been a more aggressive defender of the status quo than his predecessor, Pete Wilson.

Davis largely breezed through his first year unchallenged on the strength of his 19-percentage-point victory over Republican Dan Lungren. But the honeymoon is over, brought to an end partly by his prickly, controlling style and partly by his aversion to taking political risk.

First, the freshman Democrat outraged legislators when he declared that their job was to "implement my vision." Davis stunned the judicial branch this past month when he said he expects his judges to reflect his views or resign. Even the state's mild-mannered budget analyst was unusually critical of Davis' 2000-01 budget as short on detail and failing to attack long-range state problems.

The governor is intolerant of criticism, and his press office routinely demeans critics as irrelevant or ill-informed. More significantly, Davis is unwilling to make major investments during a time of financial plenty in long-neglected state programs such as transportation, health care, prison reform and even education, which he repeatedly says is his highest priority. Democrats and some Republicans say the state needs to spend much more to lift the schools from mediocre status; Silicon Valley executives are particularly angry that Davis will not support a measure to help raise local transportation dollars, and legislative Democrats are pushing for the extension of health insurance to far more Californians who cannot now afford it.

It's commendable, and necessary, for a governor to husband state dollars against the inevitable cooling of the economy. But Davis seems most focused on not doing anything that might harm his reelection prospects in 2002. To that end, he spent an inordinate amount of time during 1999 raising a record $13 million in campaign funds.

Davis says his 1998 election mandate justifies his insistence that all aspects of state government should reflect his views. Davis political advisor Garry South cites Davis' standing in the polls and dismisses the end-of-honeymoon talk as inside-Sacramento carping. And South claims that the outcome of the March 7 primary "argues for the governor's prudent and incremental approach" to governing.

Those arguments are questionable. Election mandates always are vague and fleeting. And the mix of the March 7 electorate was heavily tilted to older, white conservatives--not at all representative of the state's diverse population and needs.

In fact, the chief executive must govern in behalf of all 34 million Californians, with a special responsibility to the less fortunate in society. The state needs Davis to be as successful a governor as possible. But to do that, he needs to work more collaboratively with leaders of the Legislature, not dictate to them. Davis needs to overcome the impression that he listens more carefully to special-interest allies who contribute to his campaigns.

The governor should be more open with the public, directly and through the news media, about what it is he seeks to do and how he intends to do it. He needs to be more receptive to criticism for the valid points that critics may have to offer.

Davis will not change his positions on basic issues, nor would we necessarily want him to. But we urge the governor to dare to take a risk at times in seeking solutions to problems. If Gray Davis is to have any 2002 reelection problems, it will be not because of lack of campaign funds but because he failed to come to grips with California's problems.

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