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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

No Ebb in Davis' Fund-Raising Power

Politics: While officials grapple with the emergency, the governor continues to raise money. Aides say he has cut back his schedule.

March 29, 2001|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis was at a Palm Desert country club, raising more than $100,000 from the health care industry and others last week, at the same time the California Public Utilities Commission acted to exempt hospitals from blackouts.

The Democratic governor's political advisors say he has curtailed his fund-raising schedule, citing demands of the energy crisis. But Davis still maintains a vigorous money-raising pace, more than 20 months before the 2002 general election.

On Wednesday night, Davis attended another fund-raiser at the private Sutter Club near the Capitol. The price of admission was $1,000. For $25,000, donors would receive three tickets to a private cocktail reception, plus a buffet and a photo with the governor.

Davis has raised more than $26 million since taking office, a pace far surpassing that of any of his predecessors. As the energy crisis worsened in December, the last full month on record with the state, Davis added more than $1.9 million to his reelection coffers.

Aides said Davis canceled some fund-raisers in December, in part because of the deepening energy crisis. Indeed, in December 1999, when blackouts and electricity rate hikes weren't a public issue, Davis raised $2.6 million.

Davis did not play golf at Bighorn Golf Club. Rather, he stayed for about an hour and 15 minutes, and gave a lunchtime speech on energy-related issues, said Duane Dauner, the event's organizer and head of the California Healthcare Assn., which represents 450 general hospitals.

In Sacramento that day, the state Assembly, which along with the state Senate had canceled its annual trip to Washington D.C., was in session trying--unsuccessfully--to agree on energy-related legislation that the governor had requested.

"It was, in retrospect, a bad decision to be out of the Capitol at a fund-raiser," said Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda)--especially because on Friday, as Davis' bill stalled, the governor's aides were conferring with lawmakers about the skyrocketing cost of state electricity purchases.

"This is all about leadership," Perata said. "We canceled our trip to D.C. because we didn't want people to think something was more important than California."

Garry South, Davis' campaign consultant, shrugged off the criticism. "This is making a mountain out of a mole hill," he said.

And South dismissed any connection between Davis' Bighorn appearance and the PUC decision.

"That is so ridiculous," South said. "It is a public safety and health issue. Some of these connections are so ludicrous."

But the governor's fund-raising during the energy crisis may well become a political issue used by Republicans.

"That country club is going to be the Buddhist temple of the 2002 campaign," said Dan Schnur, who was an aide to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, referring to former Vice President Al Gore's notorious 1996 fund-raiser at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights.

Schnur said he can envision using videotape of Bighorn in campaign ads juxtaposed against footage of the state in an energy crisis.

South discounted the viability of Davis' activities as a campaign issue.

"I'm sure somebody will try to make an issue out of it. The answer is, so what?" South said. "Does the public like [fund-raising]? No. Has the public ever liked it? No. Does it still remain a fact of life? Yes."

Davis was in the Inland Empire on Friday to dedicate a new UC Riverside building. He went to the fund-raiser afterward. Dauner, who organized the fund-raiser, said the event was not limited to the health care industry. Also represented was at least one Indian tribe that operates a casino.

"When we set this up a long time ago," Dauner said, "I personally thought this energy issue would have been resolved and we would see if he would play [golf]. But in light of all the priorities and issues, he was not intending to play."

Dauner said the event raised more than $100,000. He said there was no discussion at the event of the PUC action exempting hospitals from blackouts. Nor was there talk of state aid for hospitals that must be retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. The Davis administration issued a report Wednesday showing that more than 900 hospitals are in need of earthquake work.

Dauner and many others defend the PUC action exempting hospitals from the threat of blackouts. A power outage could be life-threatening to people in surgery.

Representatives of several other basic services also are seeking exemptions from blackouts. Water agencies sought an exemption earlier this month, before hospitals submitted their request. The PUC has not yet acted on the water providers' request.

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