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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Davis' Dallying on Energy Dims Aura of Invincibility

February 01, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The way Garry South figures, if Pete Wilson could pull it off, Gray Davis certainly should be able to.

Gov. Wilson won reelection after facing the worst California recession since the 1930s Depression. He was forced--a Republican--to raise taxes by nearly $8 billion. Then there was the devastating drought, the killer freeze, the L.A. riots, the Northridge earthquake and some foolhardy politics. Plus, he wasn't very popular.

All those land mines, South notes, and Wilson still beat state Treasurer Kathleen Brown--

member of California's most famous political family--by about 15 percentage points.

Now Davis faces his own certified crisis: trying to keep electricity flowing at an affordable price. Trying to keep the private utilities out of bankruptcy and the power generators from draining the state treasury.

Republicans think they may smell blood.

"Political obits have been written before on Gray Davis," says South, the governor's chief political strategist for seven years.

The Davis guru points out there isn't even a Republican candidate for a primary election that's only 13 months away, with an initial filing deadline just nine months off. "You can't beat somebody with nobody."

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He essentially places GOP Secretary of State Bill Jones in the "nobody" category. Jones, a Fresno farmer turned politician, long has seemed like the logical challenger for a party with a weak bench. "Bill Jones can't raise bus money back to Fresno," asserts South.

Jones' latest campaign finance report shows he had $118,336 cash as of Dec. 31.

Davis had roughly $26 million.

What similarities do Davis and Wilson share? "Both are very, very savvy, very disciplined, very tough politicians," South says.

"It was a mistake for us to underestimate Pete Wilson. And it's a serious mistake to underestimate Gray Davis."

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Legislators also are making Davis-Wilson comparisons, but their conclusions are much different from South's.

That Northridge earthquake, for example: Wilson earned his Gen. Patton stars there by quickly taking action. He cut red tape and offered contractor bonuses to get damaged freeways reopened long before expected.

One Democratic legislative leader was overheard saying this week: "As much as I hated the SOB, Pete Wilson would have taken care of this."

Another key Democrat in the middle of energy negotiations commented: "We're talking about sending the governor a 'You the man' bill." What's that? "A bill that says, 'OK, do whatever you want, you the man!'

"But that's the last thing he wants," this lawmaker added. "People are desperate for leadership. Just give us a plan and we'll work with it."

Only one Democrat has criticized Davis publicly. Sen. Don Perata of Alameda spoke into a committee mike Tuesday, on TV, and scolded the governor without mentioning his name. The state "executive," Perata said, should sponsor a bill declaring it California's intent to increase power generation by, say, 5,000 megawatts within 18 months.

"It's a supply and demand thing," the agitated senator exclaimed, "so stand up and say, 'This is how we're going to get the supply and here's how we're going to cut the demand.' The Legislature cannot act collectively to do that. It has to be a single voice that comes out of the administration. Amen."

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Davis gave a strongly worded State of the State address Jan. 8, implying tough actions. But he has been slow to follow up with specific, substantive moves. That's why all the major proposals have been coming out of the Legislature.

Some people watching the governor say he's reluctant to delegate--nothing new there--and is focusing on pieces of the puzzle rather than assessing the whole picture.

Many believe he's paralyzed by fear of making the wrong decision.

An example: As blackouts rolled Jan. 17, Davis and legislative leaders huddled for hours. Finally, according to insiders, an impatient Senate GOP leader Jim Brulte asked Davis to send all staff out of the room. Then he bluntly told the governor, Tell us what you want.

Davis replied, I want you to ask me to declare a state of emergency. The leaders refused, reminding the governor he was the state's chief executive, the leader. In the end, Davis did declare a state of emergency, allowing him to buy electricity with state dollars. Legislators backed him.

But why so skittish? Davis seems to feel he needs cover for any move that might spark controversy.

South is right. The governor's still a good bet for reelection.

But Gray Davis is no Pete Wilson.

The Capitol longs for a Gen. Patton.

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