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Commentary | ON THE RECALL / Peter H. King

The Small Stuff Greases Davis' Skid

August 24, 2003|Peter H. King

One in a series of columns by King that will run twice weekly through the election.

The bands no longer strike up "California, Here We Come" when Gray Davis enters a room. His tune is "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me." In speeches he seems almost bewildered about how it all went so bad, so fast. It's a right-wing coup, he contends. Or, no, he's a victim of the economy. Or of the energy crisis. Or of a do-nothing state Legislature that hung him out to dry. Or, he hints, perhaps it's all just a matter of style, his dull speaking performances, the way he combs his hair.

Davis is not necessarily wrong in these assorted assessments. More than anything, his unprecedented unpopularity seems to be the product, not of a single high crime, nor even of some great partisan divide, but rather a mix of lesser misdemeanors and missteps.

Most Californians, it seems, have a story to tell about when they gave up on the governor. For some it was the way he almost eagerly allowed death sentences to be carried out, no matter the extenuating circumstances. For others it was his initial refusal to drive a stake through the heart of Proposition 187, Pete Wilson's pet illegal immigration initiative.

Sacramento insiders talk about his temper, the way he screams at junior staff. Or about his unwillingness to share the glory. They remember how he described for the San Francisco Chronicle the role of state legislators: "Their job is to implement my vision. That is their job."

And there's the ceaseless fund-raising. Nothing deters Davis from his rounds. Consider: One night four years ago, after three Sacramento synagogues had been set ablaze, 4,000 people streamed into a theater to grieve and demonstrate their disgust. It was a moving event, sincere and effective, and the only Sacramento official noticeably absent was Gov. Davis. The governor had a prior commitment, a fund-raiser, at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club.

Though moments such as this greased the rails, polling suggests the runaway train bearing down on Davis gained most of its momentum in two distinct periods. The first coincided with the energy crisis. This was a time when Davis could please nobody -- not the utilities, the consumer activists, the partisans, the pundits. What wasn't known then, but what is clear now, is that the crisis constituted one of the great crimes of the century, a studied effort to manipulate the market and squeeze Californians dry. And it should give recall supporters pause to consider that ousting Davis would bring mordant comfort, or at least a giggle, to these energy bandits.

Davis' next big skid came last fall, toward the end of his relentlessly negative reelection campaign. He never did make a case for himself in the race, but he could have. Despite the energy debacle, the lights, by and large, stayed on. Also, he had kept his promise to end the race-baiting politics of Pete Wilson's time.

Instead Davis simply attacked, first Richard Riordan then Bill Simon. He won reelection, but depleted his once overstuffed campaign vault and dismayed even those who voted for him. And he entered his second term with record low approval ratings, along with an exploding fiscal crisis and a Legislature decidedly uninterested in implementing his vision of how to fix it.

What's ironic is that so much of Davis' conduct as governor was calculated to avoid just this kind of mess. Not wanting to be branded a liberal, he stuck to the center, only to turn off the left and the right. Worried a wealthy, self-financing rival might rise up against him, he took fund-raising to the extreme, only to find himself encircled now by millionaires, all clamoring to be governor of "the people."

What's a poor, poor pitiful governor to do? Well, Thursday night Davis could be found in a hotel atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, at a cocktail party for contributors. It was reported he extracted $1.5 million from the crowd. Davis, of course, can use the money for more television ads -- to persuade voters that he doesn't spend all his time as governor raising money.

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