SACRAMENTO — Why is Gov. Gray Davis raising barrels of political money when his reelection race still is two years away? Is it paranoia? A hobby? An addiction?
It's political self-preservation, Davis and his aides insist.
To understand, they say, look no further than those pro-voucher ads on TV. These spots don't even mention the word "vouchers." But they do slam Davis, claiming he "cuts deals with the teachers union" and has "sold out our children."
The ads have not helped Prop. 38, which would provide a state voucher worth $4,000 for any child who attends a private school. But they have taken a nick out of Davis, polls indicate.
A new survey by pollster Mark Baldassare for the Public Policy Institute of California shows that Prop. 38 is supported by only 36% of likely voters and opposed by 55%. That's even slightly worse than when the ads began running last month.
But Davis' job rating--while still impressive--has slipped, notably among Republicans: 60% of Californians approve of the way he's handling his job; 28% disapprove. Last month it was 66% to 24%.
Davis looks at those ads and sees the handiwork of yet another super rich political dilettante who's after his hide. This one's Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, a Republican who's bankrolling Prop. 38. There's speculation that Draper also may want to bankroll his own gubernatorial campaign against Davis in 2002.
Davis went through this in 1998. Megabucks businessman Al Checchi poured $40 million of his own money into the Democratic primary. Another candidate, Rep. Jane Harman, spent about $14 million of her own. Davis struggled by the old-fashioned way--begging--and wound up with barely enough, $9 million.
"Look what happened with this Corzine guy," Davis notes. Jon Corzine was an obscure retired investment banker who bought a New Jersey Senate nomination last June by spending his own $34 million. He trounced a former governor.
So those TV ads "bring back a lot of bad memories," says Davis' political strategist, Garry South. "There's a sense of deja vu. Here's another self-financed zillionaire bashing our brains out. . . . [In 2002] we'll get Tim Draper or Ron Unz or some other rich egomaniac."
"That's an excuse," says veteran GOP strategist Ken Khachigian, a Prop. 38 advisor. Khachigian says Draper never has talked to him about running for governor--and if he were planning to run, surely he'd insert himself into his ads.
The ads were created to counter Davis' effective spots denouncing Prop. 38, the advisor says. The aim was to cloud Davis' credibility and also toss a brushback pitch: get out of the anti-voucher campaign or you'll really get hit.
Khachigian suspects Davis is trying to build a big enough war chest to scare off competitors in 2002. South doesn't disagree: "If it has that effect, it's all right with us."
As of the last official contribution report, Davis had piled up an unprecedented $21.3 million since taking office, mainly from special interests that play for high stakes at the Capitol.
The governor is taking some flak for this, but South says: "We're continuing to raise money and we'll continue to raise money--no matter who likes it or doesn't like it."
Davis has 15 people working on fund-raising, most of them in his political office near Century City. He also hires a phone solicitor.
"This is a full bore operation," South says. "All the governor does is show up for events--make a few remarks, shake hands, eat hors d'oeuvres and split."
Davis is an anomaly: a politician who doesn't mind asking rich people for money.
In an interview last summer, he explained: "We are the most fortunate generation of Americans ever to live. Virtually everybody saw their net worth triple or quadruple over the last eight years. And I have no problem asking them to support a governor who espouses the policies that brought us to this great prosperity. . . . I have no reluctance to tell people, 'Look, you got very, very rich in this. . . . ' "
But Davis has been tapping checkbooks without hesitation for nearly 30 years. He's one of the premier fund-raisers. It seems almost like a hobby--like his beloved golf. In fact, he raises money while playing golf.
There's one theory that gifts of money satisfy Davis' need for positive feedback and gratification; he requires it as an addict does a fix.
Davis says this: "You ask my present motivation--I'm still angered by the longtime friends who deserted me [in 1998], not out of a belief I lacked the ability to lead, but I lacked the resources to run. They didn't believe I was credible up against two zillionaires.
"And I'm not letting that happen again. . . . I learn life's lessons."
For Davis, fund-raising is a prudent passion.