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Fund-Raising Feats a Mixed Bag for Davis

Politics: Cache scares foes, but how he built it raises questions of priorities.

July 31, 2001|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Methodically honing his techniques over decades, Gov. Gray Davis has become one of the nation's premier political fund-raisers, amassing a fortune that scares off rivals even as it raises questions about favoritism and the mingling of public duties and private business.

Today, Davis will file his latest campaign statement, covering the first six months of 2001. It will show that he has put together a political treasury of more than $30 million, building his war chest at a clip of $1 million for each month he has been office.

Raising money has become a Davis trademark, the skill he is perhaps best known for since his election in 1998. His reputation as fund-raiser without peer precedes him when he crisscrosses the country, enhancing his national profile as he draws support from wealthy individuals and corporations.

A Times review of Davis' political fund-raising shows he has often taken actions that have helped contributors, though he has also acted against donors' interests. More broadly, the image of Davis that emerges from interviews with friends, supporters and rivals is one of a dogged solicitor, unavoidably intermingling state and political business in a single-minded pursuit of cash.

Friends say that unlike many politicians, Davis appears to enjoy raising money.

"It is concrete," said Andy Spahn, Davis' chief of staff in 1987 and 1988 and now an executive at DreamWorks SKG. "The world of politics is full of nuance and false handshakes. In fund-raising, the bottom line is real. The check comes in, or it doesn't. It's not ambiguous. You can measure your success and your accomplishment."

Davis sets a relentless pace, taking advantage of the state's absence of contribution limits to rake in large donations, night after night.

On Friday, for instance, as lawmakers struggled to approve a budget in Sacramento, the governor attended a fund-raiser in Long Beach. He made it to another on Tuesday evening in Sacramento, and still another Thursday in the Bay Area. He is scheduled to travel Wednesday to Washington, D.C., where he will attend still another. At each stop he raises $100,000, minimum.

Seven months before the March primary, candidates and their supporters are keenly focused on money as a reflection of politicians' relative strength. As such, Davis' fund-raising abilities are a source of both power and vulnerability.

Still, his extraordinary skill as a fund-raiser may not protect the Democrat against all his potential opponents. One of those considering a run is former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican whose personal fortune would neutralize Davis' money, instantly leveling a playing field that the governor has sought to tilt.

Davis, 58, is a man without great personal wealth. He and his wife, Sharon, live in the same modest West Hollywood condo that has been their primary residence for 20 years. The sole investment he discloses on statements of economic interests he files each year is a State of Israel bond, worth no more than $10,000.

Davis consistently declines to discuss his fund-raising in detail, other than to dismiss suggestions that contributions affect his official actions.

"There is not a major supporter of mine who has not had at least one or two of their measures vetoed," Davis said earlier this year. "I take each issue as it comes. If you look at the whole history of what I've done, you won't find a single person--business, labor, the environmental community, the consumer community--that can't point to several successes and several failures. That's the way I intend to govern.

"I'm not going to affix my signature to anything that I don't feel good about," he continued. "I don't care if it is my closest friend, my biggest legislative ally. If I don't feel good about the bill, I'm not going to do it."

Prospecting on the Affluent Westside

Davis began his career in politics in the early 1970s as a fund-raiser for Tom Bradley's Los Angeles mayoral campaigns. Later, he took a hand in gubernatorial fund-raising when he was chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s. When Davis left the Brown administration to run for office, many of Brown's donors became Davis'.

First elected to the state Assembly in 1982 from a district that includes Beverly Hills, Davis would prospect for donors where the money was, on the Westside. He'd play golf at the Hillcrest Country Club, preferring afternoon tee times so he could work the lunchtime crowd.

He'd show up at other lawmakers' fund-raisers, where he would hand out business cards.

Even as a young official, Davis found big money by frequenting functions put on by Drexel Burnham Lambert, the now-defunct investment house of "junk bond king" Michael Milken. In 1989, as Drexel was collapsing and Milken was facing federal charges for securities law violations, most politicians ran. Davis remained loyal, publicly proclaiming his faith in Milken.

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