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DECISION 2000 / CALIFORNIA

Davis Feels the Glow of His Party's Successes

State: Governor claims credit for wins by four ballot initiatives. But some fellow Democrats say he didn't help them enough.

November 09, 2000|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Proclaiming that "Californians came through like champs," Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday touted better-than-passing grades from voters on his midterm election tests--even as some of his fellow Democrats groused that he offered them little help.

The governor claimed credit for victories on four ballot initiatives this year, most prominently Proposition 39, which will allow voters to approve local school construction bonds by a 55% tally rather than the previous two-thirds majority.

Davis cited Democratic gains in the state Senate and Assembly, Democrats' picking up of four congressional seats in California and Sen. Dianne Feinstein's reelection as evidence that Californians agree with his style of moderate politics.

And the governor, who headed Vice President Al Gore's campaign in California, said Gore's 1.2-million-vote margin of victory here gave the candidate the lead he now enjoys in the popular vote--and possibly the yet-to-be-determined electoral college tally.

"We did our part here," Davis said.

"This state," he continued, "will respond to good, fiscally responsible, pro-choice, pro-sensible gun control, anti-tobacco candidates. That's what this state is all about. This state is not about people way off on the left or way off on the right."

Despite Democratic successes here, however, Davis' effort was not without controversy. The governor, whose reelection bank account bulges with more than $21 million, donated relatively small sums to Democratic candidates--$50,000 parceled out to five Assembly candidates, for example.

"There was a lot of grumbling about it," a veteran campaign strategist involved in state campaigns said. "I know he didn't give a lot of money. He only did rallies for a few days."

Some Gore partisans were angry that Davis' chief campaign advisor, Garry South, criticized the Gore campaign last month for failing to attack Bush harder nationally and for his lack of campaigning in California.

Gore backers believe that South made the criticism in the hope that if the vice president expended more effort here he would energize Democrats, which in turn would benefit the Proposition 39 campaign.

"If Gray was so concerned, you would have seen him dump money," another veteran strategist said.

South, angry at such comments, cited numerous examples of how Davis helped Gore.

"It is an insult and disservice for anyone in the Gore camp to downplay the governor's commitment and his involvement in this campaign," South said Wednesday.

Hard feelings notwithstanding, Democrats did exceptionally well in the first campaign since Davis won election 1998, picking up four Assembly seats, giving them 50 to the Republicans' 30, and one state Senate seat, for a 26-14 margin.

Republicans in California fell more deeply into disarray. They have no obvious candidate who can mount a significant challenge when Davis runs for reelection in 2002.

South has speculated that Timothy Draper, the wealthy venture capitalist who financed Proposition 38, might run against Davis. But the voucher measure's drubbing at the polls Tuesday could damage any ambitions Draper harbors.

Davis helped opponents of the measure by appearing in ads attacking it and by denouncing it in speeches. Proposition 38 lost by what Davis called a "humiliating" 29.3% to 70.7%. The governor was also among the most prominent backers of major parks and water bond measures on the March ballot.

"I cannot thank the California electorate enough," he said. "Every time I've gone to them on major ballot measures . . . they have come through and have put California on the right course."

His biggest victory was in the passage of Proposition 39, which won 53.3% to 46.7%. The governor and his campaign team raised $32 million for the initiative. The donors included many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and others who regularly give to Davis.

In at least one instance, a donor benefited from a recent action the governor took. At the end of September, Davis vetoed legislation that would have blocked a proposed dump in north San Diego County. Three weeks later, developers of the dump donated $100,000 to help pass Proposition 39, campaign finance reports show.

Backers of the dump did not return calls Wednesday.

"I can't look into people's brains and know why they gave," South said. "It could be that people thought this was a very important thing to do to improve the fabric of our public schools."

Indian tribes, several of which have also been large donors to the governor, oppose the planned Gregory Canyon landfill, saying it is at the base of a mountain they view as sacred. The dump's developers contend that tribes oppose it because it would interfere with the tribe's casinos in the area.

"I'm surprised what happens in the Capitol, quite often," said Stan McGarr, secretary of the Pala Band, which opposed the dump. Added Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Indians, which operates a casino in north San Diego County, "It is strange how the invisible hand of political contributions works."

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