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Representing the flip side

Described as likable and warm, some say the governor's wife is everything he's not.

October 22, 2002|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer


Midway through her debut year as California's first lady, Sharon Davis received an unexpected invitation: Please, asked officials at Cal State Chico, deliver our commencement address.

She quickly agreed. But as luck would have it, graduation day was a 109-degree sizzler. So Davis, gazing out at the crowd of wilting seniors, cut short her speech and struggled to come up with a memorable send-off.

Her final message to the Chico State class of 2000? "Party on!"

The graduates roared their approval, and Davis figured she had scored big. Then came the next day's headline: Governor's Wife Tells Grads to Party On.

Sharon Davis likes to tell this story, which says a lot about her. Unlike her ever-cautious husband, she is voluble, self-deprecating and not afraid to share a laugh at her own expense. She's also a deft speaker who can read an audience and will risk an embarrassing moment if it feels right.

While polls show that most California voters view Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with something well short of affection, his petite, red-haired wife seems to delight and comfort his constituents wherever she goes.

That ability has made her the not-so-secret weapon in the Davis reelection effort, a surrogate who, some advisors say, tops the candidate himself in her ability to work a room, disarm skeptics and distill the governor's accomplishments into a real-world message.

"Gray Davis isn't a political natural," says Garry South, the governor's chief campaign strategist. "Sharon Davis is."

Adds Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento: "Four years of exposure to Gray Davis has not made us like him. Ten minutes of exposure to Sharon Davis makes you genuinely like her."

While many political spouses campaign grudgingly or want no role at all, Davis, 48, relishes the job. Her years as a flight attendant, she says, were perfect preparation: "I learned to smile even when my feet hurt."

The governor may be raising millions in his campaign for a second term, but it is his wife who is doing the ground-level work. Traveling five days a week, she rallies volunteers, mingles with labor leaders and preaches the Gray Davis gospel -- moderate policies, incremental change -- to all willing listeners. By late October, that pace will have accelerated to seven days a week.

Consultants say a likable spouse can boost a candidate's image immeasurably, projecting his human side and, in the case of an unpopular politician, providing living proof that he may not be so bad after all.

"An articulate, energetic wife can stand up and say, 'You know, I live with this man 24 hours a day, I see how hard he works, what his commitment is,' " says Larry Thomas, an advisor to former GOP Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian. "That presents a tremendous little window for a curious person to look into."

A sense of awe

Sharon Davis never expected to lead a life even remotely resembling the one she has now. At her 30-year high school reunion in August, she told friends she still pinches herself to make sure it's all real. At other events, she says the smartest thing she ever did was marry well.

Even after nearly four years as first lady, Davis projects a sense of awe about her station in life. And she still speaks with a candor unsettling for the guarded political set.

Born Sharon Lee Ryer, the daughter of a Navy petty officer and a housewife, she was one of seven children raised in the small town of Santee near San Diego. The boisterous, church-going household was a happy place, she says, though her father was stingy with affection and ordered everyone around. Sharon, a middle child, was plump, wore glasses, got Cs and, she recalls, "had no real direction in life."

In high school, however, she became what friend Dora Winn calls "the swan" -- slimming down, dying her hair blond and "turning into the quintessential California girl." At 15, her parents urged her to enter the Miss Santee beauty pageant, and she won. The victory, Davis says, gave her a surge of confidence about what the future might hold.

Her ticket out of Santee was as a flight attendant for now-defunct Pacific Southwest Airlines. Competition for jobs with the carrier was stiff, and Davis recalls being very proud of her achievement until a kid on the street pointed to her uniform -- miniskirt, red high heels -- and observed that she must work for Burger King. After that, she changed clothes at the airport.

It was on a PSA flight that she met her future husband, in a 1979 episode both love to recount. Gray Davis, then chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown, was running late, causing the pilot to hold the jet on the runway. When he boarded without an apology, flight attendant Ryer was waiting: "Who do you think you are? You just made 120 people late."

Not exactly love at first sight.

On subsequent flights, however, the two got to talking. And eventually, as improbable as it seemed to friends, they began dating. She was 25, he was 36.

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