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THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

Davis' Drive Has Been Unswerving

Profile: Long climb has displayed pragmatism and perseverance, but not always expedience.

October 11, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1994, Gray Davis faced a major career decision. Fresh off a disastrous U.S. Senate campaign, his choice was to seek a third term as state controller or surrender that safe seat to run for the less powerful post of lieutenant governor.

He chose the latter, saying he wished to be "an ambassador of hope" at a time when California was economically flat on its back. But that was not really his motive.

For years, Davis had plotted his return to the governor's office, where he had served as Jerry Brown's chief of staff and, in Brown's frequent absences, as California's de facto chief executive.

Through much of 1993, Davis met with strategists and supporters, pondering his future. Some, like his wife, Sharon, saw the lieutenant governor's position as a step down. As controller, Davis was California's chief financial officer, a job he turned into a high-profile platform for environmental activism and abortion rights.

But Davis was convinced the lieutenant governor's post was the best perch from which to reach the next rung, according to several of those involved in the strategy sessions. The office looked better on a resume. Fewer duties meant more time for politics. And winning a new office would be a validation of sorts after he had lost badly to fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the 1992 Senate primary.

The job switch proved a shrewd one. Davis easily won the lieutenant governor's race and four years later became governor. His title was a big asset, voters told his campaign researchers, conveying a reassuring sense of experience and Sacramento know-how.

The path he followed says much about the way Davis has approached politics and policy during his 25-plus years in public life.

Throughout, he has hewed to a handful of beliefs, including support for the death penalty and gay rights, that have not always been the most politically expedient positions.

As Brown's top aide, Davis was vital to enacting environmental legislation and opening the ranks of state government to women and minorities. In the Legislature, he championed the cause of missing children, putting their faces on billboards, bus stops and milk cartons. As controller and then lieutenant governor, he fought offshore oil drilling and took on the tobacco industry when other politicians balked. His consistent moderate-to-conservative views predated the national Democratic Party's own shift away from its traditional liberal moorings.

"He's one of the most knowledgeable people I've ever known in state government," said John Plaxco, a former aide. "He knows how to get things done in a way few people do."

If he wins reelection Nov. 5, Davis will arguably be the most successful Democratic politician California has ever seen, winning three separate offices in five elections--all, so far, by big margins.

And yet, for all that, Davis' voracious fund-raising, his clinical approach to issues and his constant eye on the next opportunity have created a widely held perception, in the words of one past advisor, that for him principle always falls second to political calculation.

"What motivates him is to win," said Richard Steffen, who served as Davis' chief of staff during his two terms in the state Assembly. "To get elected."

Those who have worked closely with Davis at different times over the past two decades use identical words to describe him. He is a shark, a machine, the Stepford politician, a man who, for all his accomplishments, still rubs many Californians--and even many of his own aides--the wrong way. It was his "agenda" to become governor, former staff members say, not his dream.

Most of the criticism is said privately, a testament to the governor's power and to fears of retribution. Working for Davis has been a rite of passage for a generation of California Democrats, many still active in state government and politics. Almost unanimously, they share the perception of Davis as someone more interested in self-advancement than substantive achievement.

"When we sat down to talk about his goals for the year, it was never how to make the world a better place," said one former aide. "It was always, 'What's going to get me media attention?' and 'What's going to please interest groups?' " important to Davis' fund-raising. "That was the heart of discussions."

Davis has long disputed the notion that he cares more about politicking than policymaking. "I enjoy governing," he said in a campaign-trail interview four years ago, describing the fund-raising-and-chicken-dinner grind as a necessary burden. (Privately, aides go further, saying he detests the glad-handing and political pomp that other candidates find exhilarating.)

As for the ego salve of personal adulation, Davis said in Monday's debate, "My job is not to win a popularity contest. It's to lead this state."

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