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Davis Concedes Mistakes but Fights 'Power Grab'

August 20, 2003|Miguel Bustillo and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

Alternately contrite and defiant in his most direct response to the attempt to remove him from office, Gov. Gray Davis on Tuesday asked Californians to help him stop a "right-wing power grab" that he said would do "lasting damage to our state, our environment and the very fabric of our democracy."

"This recall is bigger than California," Davis told a live television audience and hundreds of supporters at UCLA. "What's happening here is part of an ongoing national effort to steal elections that Republicans cannot win."

For the first time, Davis conceded that he had made mistakes on major issues -- being too slow to respond to the energy crisis and not tough enough in controlling state spending when the treasury was flush.

"We made our share of mistakes. And like you, I wish I had known then all I know now," he said.

But while he referred to his errors in the 19-minute speech, Davis quickly asserted that the state's crises had many causes -- from a flagging national economy and greedy energy barons to uncompromising Republican legislators and an inattentive federal government.

Davis' opponents derided his attempt to cast himself as a victim of circumstance and a Republican recall plot.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo called the conspiracy theory "just not true."

"The Republicans did not fix the polls that showed he was at 22%" approval, Camejo said.

And Bill Simon Jr., who lost to Davis last year and is now running again, said the governor did anything but take responsibility, as he promised he would at the start of the speech.

"What we heard was, 'It's somebody else's fault. It's a conspiracy. It's President Bush. It's the national economy,' " Simon said. "It's everything but Gray Davis himself."

Political observers said the combination of humility and feistiness in Davis' speech was designed to win back disaffected Democrats. The party remains dominant in California, and Davis strategists have said they believe the argument that the recall is a case of partisan politics run wild can be effective for them. Focus groups have shown that Democrats might be willing to vote against the recall if Davis acknowledged some failures, political analysts said.

But the audience for the speech appeared to emphasize Davis' isolation in the party. As he made the speech that his aides have touted as key to his effort to restore his flagging support, few prominent Democrats were on hand.

Aside from the governor, the most recognizable Democrat in attendance was Henry Cisneros, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton. Many members of the audience, who were invited by Davis' campaign, were from labor unions and environmental groups.

Another prominent Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante -- who says he is running a "No on the Recall, Yes on Bustamante" campaign -- declined to comment on Davis' speech.

A notoriously wooden speaker, Davis was true to his usual form during the speech. Yet he appeared relaxed at times -- even laughing as one man in the audience derided opponent Arnold Schwarzenegger -- and received considerable applause from the partisan crowd.

The speech was heavily tailored to appeal to Democratic constituencies -- with references to a long list of party priorities, from abortion rights to workers' compensation.

Davis also tried to assure Californians that not all had gone wrong during his tenure. He noted that public school test scores have improved for five years. He said the state is now 26th among the states in per-pupil spending, compared with 43rd when he took office. And he claimed a record for cleaning up the air and water and protecting the Pacific Coast.

Above all, Davis appealed to his party by saying he had been targeted by Republicans who were frustrated that they could not defeat him in last November's regular election.

Davis received the loudest response when he said the recall followed a GOP pattern. Republicans began by leading the impeachment charge against President Clinton, continued by blocking a recount of Florida's presidential votes in 2000 and again sought unfair advantage with e redistricting attempts in Colorado and Texas, Davis said.

The speech began with Davis appearing with his wife, Sharon, on the stage of the Ackerman Ballroom at UCLA's Student Union just after 5 p.m. -- in time for evening newscasts. He appeared calm as he launched almost immediately into a speech he said would be "to take responsibility, to set the record straight and to talk about the future."

He spoke first about the state's $38-billion budget gap and the crisis that in his first term threatened power outages and had the state buying electricity at hugely inflated prices.

On both issues, the governor went further than he has in the past toward accepting responsibility. But he also depicted events that he said made the twin crises hard to avoid.

Davis said he would accept the public's assessment that he had been "slow to act on the energy crisis."

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