SACRAMENTO — As governor of the most populous state, Gray Davis already has a platform from which to speak out on national affairs.
And the first-term governor will enlarge that in January by becoming chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn., an organization that helps finance gubernatorial candidates and shape statehouse policy.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 28, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Governors' association--An article Monday misstated the office from which former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis resigned to run for president in 1988. He resigned as chairman of the Democratic Governors' Assn.
Past chairmen include President Clinton, during his Arkansas days, and Michael Dukakis, who resigned as Massachusetts governor to run for president in 1988.
Davis turns aside suggestions that he may eventually make a national run. But serving as the Democrats' point man on issues affecting states can help him gain additional recognition.
"It allows him to speak on issues that are important not only to his state but to the country as a whole," said B.J. Thornberry, executive director of the organization. "He becomes the spokesperson for all the Democratic governors."
Davis' fund-raising prowess is a big reason why the other governors looked to him to lead the association. As the group's vice chairman, Davis raised $750,000 of the $5.8 million the association spent on this year's 11 gubernatorial races. The sum he raised was a record for a vice chairman.
Davis generated money for individual candidates as well. In August, for example, he hosted a fund-raiser in Brentwood for New Hampshire Gov. Jean Shaheen, generating $50,000 for her reelection, and he delivered a $10,000 donation to Shaheen later in the campaign.
"He absolutely did his share," Thornberry said. "He did a record amount, probably two or three times more than any previous vice chairman."
If Davis succeeds in helping to elect more Democratic governors, he will be able to call on them for help in any national run of his own. Speculation about a Davis candidacy is bound to increase if Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, captures the presidency.
"Raising money for other Democrats doesn't just help build support among other elected officials," said Dan Schnur, a Republican who was Gov. Pete Wilson's communications director. "It dramatically helps your own fund-raising."
This year, Democrats won eight of the 11 contested gubernatorial seats, increasing their total with the victory in West Virginia. However, Republicans still have more governors than Democrats--29 to 19, with two independents. Two seats are up next year, in New Jersey and Virginia.
The big fight will be in 2002, when 36 seats will be contested. Davis' job as the organization's leader is to raise money for next year's races and leave a fat bank account for 2002.
"He is a high-profile governor from a big state," said North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, outgoing chairman of the Republican Governors Assn. "He'll be able to raise a lot of money."
Schafer predicted that his organization will spend $20 million on the 2002 donnybrook. Davis has not publicly stated a fund-raising goal.
"The base of political support for Bush was his fellow Republican governors," noted Schnur. "The more Democrats who Davis helps elect in 2002, the more Democrats will be there for him in 2004."
Although governors of big states rarely take time from their duties to head such organizations, Garry South, Davis' chief political strategist, said other Democrats put "a fair amount of pressure" on Davis to take over, in part because of his ability to raise money. And as the governor of the most populous state, his fellow governors believed he would draw attention to Democratic policies.
"Any governor of California is automatically looked to for leadership by other governors," South said.
Davis' role as chairman will require time and travel, South said. But the key to whether he can emerge as a national candidate is what happens in California.
"The governor of California is always under serious consideration [for a national candidacy]," said Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Davis' counterpart at the Republican Governors Assn. "All that will depend on how successful he is in California."