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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

The Romance Dies in the Honeymoon of GOP and Davis

September 18, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

PALM SPRINGS — For nearly 21 months since he took office, Republicans have deferred to Gov. Gray Davis as if he were their captor. Some negotiating, yes. But no back talk.

No public denunciations.

This has been a matter of pragmatics in Sacramento. Republicans are badly outnumbered in the Legislature. To achieve anything, they need to compromise and not rile the Capitol master.

Moreover, they're not exactly encouraged to act up. The voters like Davis, according to polls. And big business--the Republicans' patron--has developed a cozy relationship with the Democratic governor. He has courted corporate interests while they have plied him with campaign donations.

But the long honeymoon finally ended Saturday at a Republican state convention in sweltering Palm Springs--at least for one GOP politician, normally mild-mannered Secretary of State Bill Jones.

Jones said he felt a duty as the last Republican standing in statewide office to blow the whistle on Davis. In a luncheon speech, he questioned the governor's commitment to California, his vision and--most damning--his integrity.

"[He's] a governor who, as soon as he took office, put his personal ambitions ahead of the public's needs," Jones charged.

"A disappointing example of a leader with all the smarts and all the resources to have done wonderful things for the people, but instead chose a different path. . . . Do nothing and play it safe. . . .

"Gov. Davis hasn't risked an ounce of his political capital. [But] he found the time in his first 18 months in office to raise $21 million for his reelection, $38,000 a day, $1,600 an hour."

Playing off Davis' 1998 campaign slogan--"Experience money can't buy"--Jones asserted that the governor "has implemented a new slogan: 'Experience money can buy.' "

*

This wasn't just some two-paragraph swipe. Jones went on for page after page, citing examples where the governor collected campaign contributions from special interests and then acted in their favor. Davis advisor Garry South later denied any quid pro quo.

But Jones challenged the news media to dig as deeply as they did in investigating Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, who was driven from office.

"It's time to apply that same in-depth scrutiny to the governor's office," Jones asserted. "Study the money trail."

The secretary of state concluded: "If Gov. Davis won't bother with a vision, let's provide a Republican alternative. . . . I'm convinced the public is hungry for leadership and a breath of fresh air."

A Republican alternative like himself?

Jones' speech was widely viewed by delegates as his opening salvo in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign. With a weak party bench, this 50-year-old former assemblyman from Fresno seems the logical GOP candidate.

But Jones told me at the Republican National Convention last month that his decision about whether to challenge Davis will hinge on whether GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush can carry California. A Bush victory would prove--specifically to potential contributors--that a Republican still can win in this state, Jones reasoned. If Bush does, "I'll seriously consider the governor's race." If he doesn't, why bother?

"I like to have the wind in my sails rather than sailing into the wind."

*

Right now in California, Bush definitely is sailing into the wind. A new survey by pollster Mark Baldassare for the independent Public Policy Institute of California shows Vice President Al Gore leading Bush by 9 points among likely voters, 48% to 39%.

Last month, Gore led by just three points. Since then, the Democrat has increased his support among women. And Green Party candidate Ralph Nader--a rival for independents--has faded.

At the GOP convention, Republican pollster Steve Kinney provided delegates with similarly dour numbers: Gore 47%, Bush 38%.

As for Davis, he's still popular. The Baldassare poll found that 66% of Californians approve of his job performance. But the pollster also discovered a vulnerability: Only 28% approve of how the governor is handling electricity deregulation and those sky-high utility bills in San Diego.

Jones thinks Davis has an even bigger vulnerability: a smelly relationship with special interests that has resulted in unprecedented political fund-raising for a governor.

Whether Jones runs against Davis or for some lower office, he wants to fill a party leadership vacuum. And he hopes to do one other thing: earn his way back into the GOP's good graces after having deserted Bush last winter for Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Republican activists have long memories. But they like Jones' new style of talk.

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