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STATE OF THE STATE | NEWS ANALYSIS

Davis' Speech Offers a Sunny Look Backward

January 09, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Facing a stiff reelection fight, Gov. Gray Davis turned his State of the State address Tuesday into a celebration of himself, seeking credit he deems overdue and glossing over the huge budget shortfall that presents his gravest political danger.

From education to health care to--surprisingly--electricity, Davis offered an unceasingly sunny portrayal of his first three years in office.

He delivered more than half his 38-minute address before offering anything beyond a glancing reference to the $12-billion budget gap that is certain to dominate this election year.

At that, Davis suggested only the barest notion of how he intends to solve the state's fiscal crisis, promising to boost education funding, ensure public safety and expand children's programs--all with a carefully worded pledge not to raise taxes.

How he accomplishes this feat will perhaps be explained Thursday, when he releases his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

Tuesday night was dedicated mostly to looking backward, in the most favorable light, not to looking ahead.

"Smoke and mirrors," Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks said afterward. "It was a great campaign speech, but it didn't have any substance to it."

Stolidly delivered, Davis' address was at once the unofficial kickoff of his reelection campaign, delivered amid the ceremonial trappings of office, and an attempt to preempt the negative onslaught of his three Republican rivals.

"When the economy does rebound--as we know it will--California will be better prepared to come roaring back because of the smart investments and dramatic progress we've made together over these past three years," Davis said.

The governor and his campaign advisors have been frustrated at the way last year's energy shortfall and terrorist attacks stole attention from what they consider the accomplishments of Davis' first term.

The State of the State address "is that one occasion during the year when the governor really has license to brag," said Garry South, the chief strategist for Davis' reelection campaign.

Davis used that license, and then some.

Well over half his speech amounted to self-congratulation: He boasted of cutting taxes, improving the state's relations with Mexico, grooming an army of new teachers, boosting student test scores, increasing public safety and expanding conservation, among other achievements.

On energy, widely perceived as one of his greatest vulnerabilities, Davis touted the construction of new power plants, a crash conservation program and other emergency steps that "defied the odds and the prognosticators" who a year ago predicted chaos.

"I think he's the only one in the state who believes" he solved the energy crunch, said Republican gubernatorial hopeful Richard Riordan, who watched the speech at a hotel across from the Capitol.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, another of the GOP candidates, seized on Davis' vaguely worded promise to "not advocate raising taxes."

"He never said he would not support new taxes," Jones said, a sentiment echoed by the third major GOP contender, businessman Bill Simon Jr., who asserted that higher taxes were "almost a sure bet."

From a political standpoint, Davis' speech Tuesday night positioned him squarely in the middle. Stylistically, there was no high-flown rhetoric to match the ornate Assembly chamber. The address was as spare and lean as the ascetic governor himself

If the response from fellow lawmakers was notably tepid, it is worth noting that most of his fellow Democrats are well to the left of Davis, who will run for reelection statewide and not just in the liberal enclaves of San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles' Westside where many of the party's legislators thrive.

In an odd political year in which Davis' strongest opposition is coming from Riordan--a Republican running in some ways to the governor's left--Davis came up with a hybrid political speech:

From the Republican side, there was a bit of Ronald Reagan's famous "are you better off now than four years ago?" and echoes of George Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes." There was even a dash of Democrat Al Gore's "reinventing government" initiative.

Above all, though, the address was classically Gray Davis: carefully calibrated, politically acute and cautiously centrist.

The speech was threaded with references to the events of Sept. 11. He opened by urging lawmakers to "dedicate ourselves to building a future worthy" of the victims of the terrorist attacks and ended by invoking the courage of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who "summoned up the courage to overpower their captors . . . [in] one of freedom's finest hours."

While claiming credit for all of the good things that occurred over the last three years, Davis suggested that Sept. 11 was at least partly responsible for the state's current economic downturn.

He is hardly alone in his fiscal vise. At least 40 governors across the country are facing budget shortfalls in this election year, making it hard to blame any of them for today's tough economic times--try as their opponents will.

"I do think there is an awareness that this is a national issue," said Ray Scheppach, executive director of the bipartisan National Governors Assn.

That said, "If people are willing to give a little bit of a pass in terms of who created the problem, the question then shifts to: What do we do now?"

Davis' substantive response will come Thursday.

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