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THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

A Politician Governed by a Sense of Decorum

Third in a series profiling Gov. Gray Davis.

October 12, 2002|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO--He is the governor of the most populous state in America. He oversees an economy so expansive that if the Golden State were an independent country, its output would rank sixth among nations. Outside of Washington, few if any politicians have more sway over major policy issues ranging from HMO reform to the future design of automobiles.

Yet even as he presides over 35 million people, Gov. Gray Davis stands alone. He has few political allies and even fewer friends--and that seems to suit him fine. Comfortable with a style of leadership that supporters and critics alike describe as aloof, Davis wants less to be loved than to be respected. And reelected.

"We're all who we are, and at the end of the day, people want their governor to solve problems, get the job done and move us forward," Davis said in an interview. "It would be wonderful if in addition to that, he was a spellbinding orator and the most charismatic person on the planet. Fortunately, in California, we are not lacking for charismatic people."

In 1998, Davis became the first Democrat to capture California's governorship in 16 years with a sweeping victory over Republican Dan Lungren, completing a long climb up the state's political ladder. From assemblyman to state controller to lieutenant governor, Davis meticulously moved up, sometimes against the odds and without the early blessing of the Democratic establishment.

It certainly was not personal charm that carried him to the top: Davis is uncommonly bland. A fan of the familiar, he sports a seemingly endless wardrobe of blue shirts and boring ties, drinks thick tofu shakes nearly every morning, and eats turkey and broccoli with a glass of water nearly every afternoon. His only conceit is the game of golf, which he plays well but with great particularity, according to those who have watched him waggle and pace before he putts.

Davis' sharp sense of how to appeal to the vast middle of California's electorate--and a gift for raising gargantuan sums of money--have distanced him from the competition. His tendency to succeed on his own, detractors and supporters say, has molded an insular approach to governing that has defined and limited his four years as governor.

"He is not a warm and fuzzy guy," said Wayne Johnson, the president of the California Teachers Assn., which poured millions into Davis' 1998 race but has had a dysfunctional relationship with him since. "He can be charming at times, but he can also be very cold. That's just the way he is."

Though he began his tenure with a heavy-handed demand that legislators advance his agenda in lock-step, Davis has come to assume a more hands-off posture--too far off, according to legislators and others who are critical of his leadership. They say his reluctance to tackle thorny political problems, coupled with his ideological distance from the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who dominate the Capitol, complicated last year's energy crisis and this year's budget debate.

Davis often does not step into the governor's office until nearly noon, although he participates in a conference call with his political team nearly every morning. Legislators and leaders of special interest groups grumble that on the rare occasions when he does meet with them, he is usually late and often uninformed.

That mode has only fanned the belief in Sacramento that even the smallest acts of governance in Davis' first term have been geared more toward political gain than public benefit. This is a governor, after all, who spends countless hours collecting campaign cash--how many is not clear because he will not release his full schedule. So far, he has raised more than $60 million since taking office, the largest war chest of any governor in American history.

If no action is politically advantageous, critics assert, Davis will do nothing, even if inaction will only make a pressing matter worse.

"The governor is the personification of inaction, and I don't know why," said Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), who faulted Davis for failing to participate in recent talks on the state's $24-billion budget shortfall. "Davis is not interested in policy as much as politics. My judgment is his leadership ... is always late in coming."

Davis sounded far from indecisive shortly after taking office in 1999. In what backers now describe as an overzealous bid to establish control, Davis came off like a potentate when he declared during a San Francisco Chronicle interview that the job of the Legislature was to "implement my vision." The new governor quickly backpedaled, espousing a more cooperative approach with the legislative branch. But it was clear where all others stood in his idea of the state's political universe.

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