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Davis' Anti-Terrorist Proposals Send the Wrong Message to State Voters

January 17, 2002|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO

Gov. Gray Davis caught a break Tuesday. Assembly Democrats dumped his plan to expand telephone eavesdropping and allow peeking at e-mail of suspected criminals, especially terrorists.

President Bush recently signed legislation that broadened the feds' wiretap powers, but it didn't give the states permission to do what Davis wants, according to the Legislature's top lawyer. Davis wants to conduct roving wiretaps that, for example, keep pace with the bad guys' repeated switch of cell phones.

After the legislative counsel opined, Davis' ideas were quickly deleted from a bill being considered by a hostile Assembly Public Safety Committee.

And that was a good break for Davis, although he may not have realized it. Voters emphatically reject his wiretap and e-mail proposals, according to a poll being released today by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

As a pollster might say, the governor got off on the wrong track with likely voters by advocating these anti-terrorist measures in his State of the State address. The PPIC survey found that 35% favor his ideas, 63% don't.

Moreover, only 39% of voters say they're more concerned about the government failing to enact tough anti-terrorist laws than they are that the government will "excessively restrict the average person's civil liberties." The majority, 52%, are more worried about civil liberties.

California voters do lean libertarian, after all. They favor abortion rights, gay rights and medicinal marijuana. They fight government taxes and racial preferences.

"It's in the DNA of voters in this state to want government to play as limited a role as possible in their personal lives," says PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare.

"The notion of government messing around with their phone calls or e-mail makes people very nervous."

The poll shows Democrat Davis slightly trailing Richard Riordan (37% to 41%), his probable Republican challenger in November. The former mayor is running miles ahead of his GOP rivals: Riordan 41%, Secretary of State Bill Jones 13%, political novice Bill Simon Jr. 4%.

Davis' overall job performance is not so hot, voters say: 46% approve, 49% disapprove.

Clues to the governor's weaknesses--current and potential--can be found in the poll.

His continued advocacy of telephone and Internet snooping could hurt him. "He risks losing supporters," says Baldassare, because voters concerned about civil liberties currently favor Davis over Riordan by a comfortable margin.

There's strong evidence that Californians think Davis has been focusing on the wrong subject: anti-terrorism. Two-thirds approve of his handling of the issue, but they don't really care. Asked which issue facing the state is the most important for the governor and Legislature to address, terrorism/security ranks far down (4%).

Education again tops the list (20%), followed by energy and the economy (each 14%).

Nearly four in 10 voters think Davis is "a lot to blame" for California's energy problems.

On public schools, people are evenly divided: 39% approve of his performance, 40% disapprove.

They don't think schools have been getting better. A majority (55%) believe student test scores rank below average or near the bottom nationally.

That's also what they thought before Davis was elected. In truth, scores have been inching up steadily in reading and math and now are around average.

But a PPIC poll last month found that two-thirds of Californians think schools actually are no better or have gotten worse.

"People don't feel there has been the kind of improvement the governor promised," Baldassare says. "They're grading him tougher and tougher."

Davis does have successful stories to tell about education and energy, but he has been off chasing TV about the National Guard and Al Qaeda.

Advisors wanted him to back off in the State of State and focus more on other issues, but Davis insisted.

Why? Who knows! Vietnam vet. Clinging to a big story. Trying to look presidential. Genuinely scared for California.

"There's a frustrated field marshal lurking inside that man," says one associate.

Too often when Davis does talk about education, it's at a hackneyed event in some school multipurpose room, using children as TV props.

The message is blurred in a montage of cute little kids and is hard to take seriously.

But the governor will have plenty of time and money--nearly 10 months and around $50 million--to get the word out.

The word should not be wiretap.

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