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Humbled in Victory, Davis Tries New Tack

'I do want to lead this state to a better place,' governor says, pledging a bipartisan approach.

November 07, 2002|Matea Gold and Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writers

After a chastening reelection in which voters rebuked his tenure and campaign, Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday called his victory "an honor and a humbling experience" and pledged to work in a spirit of bipartisanship during his second term.

At a midmorning news conference at a Century City hotel, where Democrats on Tuesday night celebrated their potential sweep of statewide offices, Davis promised to be a "governor for all the people, whether they voted for me or not."

"I do want to lead this state to a better place than where I found it," he said. For his part, Simon remained out of public view Wednesday, as he visited supporters and thanked them for their efforts.

The governor, who beat GOP challenger Bill Simon Jr. just 47.4% to 42.4% in Tuesday's election, did not appear shaken by the close results, which followed weeks of predictions by his advisors that he would soundly defeat the Republican gubernatorial nominee.

But Davis' slim margin of victory in an election with a record low turnout underscored a deep discontent within the California electorate. Three out of five voters said they have an unfavorable impression of the man they sent back to the governor's office, according to an exit poll conducted by The Times. Slightly more than a third said their main reason for voting for him was merely to pick the best of a bad lot of candidates. One in 10 voters cast a ballot for a third-party candidate -- three times as many as did so four years ago.

Many Californians, voting officials said, simply didn't bother to go to the polls Tuesday. With about 500,000 absentee and provisional ballots still uncounted, the secretary of state's office estimated the final voter turnout at 50% to 53% -- substantially lower than the record low of 58% in 1998.

"Unfortunately, the voters spoke with silence this year," said Beth Miller, chief assistant secretary of state.

Electorate Split

Despite voter frustration with the nasty tone of the campaign and a slew of Republican victories across the country, the 2002 elections showed anew that California's electorate is split down the spine of the state. Davis captured the strip of counties along the state's coast that is home to its urban centers; 14 of the 18 counties that Davis won abut either the Pacific Ocean or San Francisco Bay.

Simon, in contrast, won the inland counties from the northern reaches of the state to San Bernardino and Riverside; he also won chunks of the coastline, including the counties of San Diego, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

"There was a huge Republican prairie fire coming out this way, and we kind of braked it, right at the Sierra Nevada," said Davis political strategist Garry South, referring to the GOP gains elsewhere in the country.

In California, by contrast, voters handed Democrats a potential takeover of statewide offices. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante beat GOP challenger Bruce McPherson, 49.5% to 41.7%. Kevin Shelley overcame Keith Olberg for secretary of state, 46.3% to 42.3%. Incumbent Phil Angelides held on to his job of state treasurer with 49.4% of the vote; challenger Phillip Gregory Conlon garnered 40.5%. Similarly, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer won reelection over Dick Ackerman, 51.4% to 40.3%.

Onetime Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi recaptured his old office, beating GOP hopeful Gary Mendoza, 46.6% to 41.6%. And in the nonpartisan race for superintendent of public instruction, Democrat Jack O'Connell trounced Republican Katherine Smith, 61.8% to 38.2%.

The only statewide race that remained up in the air Wednesday was the contest for state controller, where Democrat Steve Westly held a slight 26,000-vote lead over Republican Tom McClintock. Officials at the secretary of state's office said the results would not be complete until the end of the week, at the earliest, when the outstanding ballots are due to be processed.

Despite the Democratic domination, GOP leaders refused to concede that the losses meant their party is troubled. They noted the close returns in many contests and the apparent gain of a few seats in the state Legislature.

''This is a great election for California Republicans," said Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte. "Gray Davis won by five points. Most governors win reelection by a landslide."

The difference between Davis' 20-point romp over Republican Dan Lungren in 1998, and his squeaker this year was evident across the state. The governor won 1.7 million fewer votes Tuesday than he did four years ago, a stark verdict that will probably not change markedly, once the final votes are counted.

In many counties, Davis' share of the electorate dropped 10 points or more from 1998. This year, many of those votes went to Simon in conservative areas, but moderate and liberal voters switched their allegiance to the Green Party candidate, Peter Camejo.

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