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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Bashing Davis to Push Prop. 38 May Be Lose-Lose Tactic

September 28, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — You don't tug on Superman's cape.

You don't spit into the wind.

You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger.

And you don't mess around with Jim.

--Singer Jim Croce, 1972

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School voucher strategists are messin' with Gov. Gray Davis. Going right at him. Hard jabs to the gut.

It's an eye-opening tactic. You'd call it awfully risky, attacking a highly popular governor. Except that the voucher folks probably figure they have little to lose, given the polls.

The latest survey by pollster Mark Baldassare for the independent Public Policy Institute of California found only 37% of likely voters supporting Proposition 38, which would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers worth $4,000 to help any child--rich or poor--attend a private school. A majority, 53%, oppose the initiative.

Prop. 38's response has been to run a saturation TV ad--costing an estimated $3.5 million for 10 days--that doesn't even mention the word "voucher." Instead, it blasts Davis as if he already were running for reelection in 2002.

"Gov. Gray Davis knows our schools are failing," the ad says, "Yet, Gray Davis sold out our children, receiving over a million dollars from union bosses who block reforms. . . . Tired of politicians selling out? Fight back. . . ."

Tough words, the toughest hurled at the Democratic governor since he took office. Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones took the gloves off two weekends ago at a GOP state convention, denouncing Davis' record fund-raising. But even Jones stopped short of accusing the governor of selling out kids.

"Davis has been on a honeymoon," says Prop. 38 spokesman Chris Bertelli. "The honeymoon is over. No one has stepped up to challenge this man. Bill Jones started to. He spoke to a group of Republicans. We're going to speak to the entire state.

"We'll let everyone know: If you want policy enacted by this governor, better come with a check."

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Bertelli says that teachers unions have directly donated $1.3 million to Davis over his career.

Actually, the biggest union--the California Teachers Assn.--spent $2 million-plus helping Davis get elected in 1998. But it has contributed no money to him since. Indeed, until last spring, the governor and these "union bosses" barely were speaking.

One reason is that Davis did little to help the CTA promote a March primary measure that would have lowered the vote requirement for local school bonds from a two-thirds to a simple majority. The initiative narrowly failed. Now Davis is chairing a new ballot effort--for Prop. 39--that would reduce the vote requirement to 55%.

The CTA also took offense--contrary to the voucher campaign's spin--at some education reforms Davis pushed through the Legislature. Reforms like accountability standards for schools and teachers. But Davis did please the CTA with better teacher training, higher pay and improved pensions. And far from selling out students, he provided them with advanced curricula and merit scholarships.

In fact, this governor--following the gains of his Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson--probably is the most significant California school reformer in decades.

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It's a strange strategy, promoting vouchers by pummeling Davis.

The Baldassare poll found that 66% of voters approve of Davis' job performance; only 27% disapprove. Moreover, among the few voters undecided about Prop. 38, Davis' performance is approved by 57%.

The one glimmer of sensibility in the Prop. 38 strategy may be found in this statistic: Among the small minority who disapprove of Davis, 52% support vouchers. So drive up Davis' negatives and presumably you'll also drive up the voucher vote.

Destroy the governor's credibility. Davis appeared in an anti-voucher TV ad over the summer--at the CTA's request--and seriously damaged Prop. 38, both sides agree.

There's buzz in political circles that this anti-Davis ad may just be the opening volley in a 2002 gubernatorial race by Prop. 38's billionaire backer, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper. But he insists, "I'm not running for anything."

And campaign guru Ken Khachigian asserts: "This is not a political thing about hurting Davis as governor, and it's not aimed at his reelection. It just reflects honest, philosophical differences about the pace of reform."

Actually, it seems about going down to defeat with all guns blazing--tugging on Superman's cape, spitting into the wind and persuading voters there's a mask to pull off this governor.

But it's likely voters will decide based on a simple question: Do they want their tax dollars taken from public schools and spent on helping rich people send their children to private schools? Probably not.

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