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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Sacramento's Savvy Sophomore

September 04, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — He's lucky. Cautious. Shrewd. It's why Gov. Gray Davis is avoiding the sophomore jinx that has plagued practically every California governor for 40 years.

So far.

He still could trip over the Nov. 7 election. Davis--chucking caution--is risking political prestige and popularity by engaging in two big ballot prop fights.

He's honchoing Proposition 39 to reduce the vote requirement for local school bonds from a two-thirds majority to 55%. The governor also has cut TV ads denouncing Prop. 38, which would spend public money for private school vouchers.

Most political pros expect close outcomes, although the independent Field Poll two weeks ago found Davis' side prevailing by healthy margins on both props. (Bonds: yes 48%, no 31%. Vouchers: yes 36%, no 49%.)

The same poll found Davis with a high job performance rating: 2 to 1 approval (56%-28%). But it has slipped from 3 to 1 approval in June. One might suspect that's because Democrats are growing impatient with Davis' timidity toward bold, expensive solutions to horrendous state problems--notably transportation--and his political base is starting to erode. Just the opposite, the poll found. It's Republicans who are beginning to sour on Davis.

Poll director Mark DiCamillo blames Davis' party cheerleading at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Nonsense, contends Davis' own pollster, Paul Maslin. He says Davis' high profile opposition to school vouchers--favored heavily by Republicans--is hurting him among GOP voters.

Whatever, no governor in a long time has had it this good in his sophomore year.

*

At the 1960 Democratic convention in L.A., sophomore Gov. Pat Brown earned the moniker "bumbler" for failing to control California's fractured delegation. That year, he also was tagged a "tower of jelly" for trying to avoid sending notorious "Red Light Bandit" Caryl Chessman to the gas chamber.

Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown were afflicted with Potomac fever in their second years as governor, running lamely for president. Brown--Davis' boss--never fully recovered.

George Deukmejian suffered an administration scandal when economic development officials got caught stealing money. This year, the big Sacramento scandal didn't touch Davis; it crushed a Republican, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

Pete Wilson had an awful sophomore year. He was pounded in every political effort, including sponsorship of a welfare reform initiative in November. Worse, he stubbornly got bogged down in a summer-long budget stalemate while the state operated on IOUs.

Wilson and Davis are similarly strong-willed. But there's a significant difference: Wilson relished a fight; Davis avoids fights. He just wins.

Davis also is lucky. Unlike Republican Wilson, he deals with a Legislature controlled by his own party. Moreover, this year he enjoyed a $13-billion budget surplus fed by a roaring economy. Wilson battled gaping deficits.

Politics--like life--is a lot about being in the right place at the right time. And capitalizing.

*

Davis capitalizes with caution. It's his survival instinct. It's also what voters demand, he believes.

Garry South, the governor's chief political strategist, says three years of private polling and focus groups have shown that voters were not repudiating Wilson's policies when they elected Davis in a landslide. They were rejecting Republican nominee Dan Lungren's far-right conservatism, but not asking for liberalism.

"In a strange way, they looked at Gray Davis and Pete Wilson and saw a lot of overlap," South says. "In the final analysis, they thought Gray Davis was a better choice than Dan Lungren in terms of stability and continuity. . . .

"Anyone who tells you that the election signaled a massive public desire for change doesn't know what they're talking about. If we try to turn the world upside down in one fell swoop, we're going to be out on our ear."

Incrementalism is the Davis credo.

That and centrism: Spend the hard cash surplus, but don't commit future revenues that may never exist; avoid any conceivable need for a tax increase. Pour money into schools, but hold them accountable. Help labor without hurting business. Protect fish, but don't anger farmers.

Keep the brake on lefty lawmakers. Compromise, but coerce. Halt liberal bills in their tracks; they'll be toned down or vetoed.

The Legislature's job is to implement my vision.

That was a freshman governor carelessly mouthing off. But the Legislature has, indeed, pretty much implemented the agenda of this governor.

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