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Davis Tries to Rally Support for Budget

At a town hall meeting moderated by Peter Jennings, the governor calls on GOP to accept tax hikes to end legislative deadlock.

May 22, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Faced with record-low approval ratings, a recall movement and entrenched legislative opposition to his budget, Gov. Gray Davis campaigned Wednesday for his spending plan at a town hall meeting of nearly 200 Californians moderated by ABC news anchor Peter Jennings.

Sounding what has become a theme of his efforts to sell his budget solution, Davis again challenged Republicans to abandon their opposition to tax increases.

"Give us ideas to help break the impasse and move this toward a plan that allows the state to go forward," Davis said to applause during the 90-minute meeting, broadcast live in the Sacramento area. "That doesn't mean you abandon your principles. It means you recognize why you were hired. You were hired by the people of this state to do your best to get a two-thirds vote to pass the budget."

Davis and five other panelists faced questioning from Jennings and the audience.

The event was the latest in a flurry of appearances by Davis to sell his solutions for the state fiscal crisis. In recent days, Davis has lobbied newspaper editorial boards and held news conferences intended to build public support for his proposed solution to the state's projected $38.2-billion budget shortfall. Aides have fanned out across the state to deliver similar messages, hoping that constituents will be persuaded and will help them put pressure on the Legislature to act.

At the town hall meeting, which was organized by ABC News and its Sacramento affiliate, the Democratic governor talked about how his budget would protect public education.

The broad range of audience questions and positions voiced by Davis and state Sen. Rico Oller (R-San Andreas) framed the competing perspectives at play in the debate. One questioner after another made a case for funding a state service that was important to him or her: community colleges, health care, public schools, programs for the disabled, care for crime victims.

Oller staked out the Republican legislative position in unyielding terms: no new taxes under any circumstances. And, responding to a plea against certain cuts, he warned: "I don't think there are a lot of oxes that aren't gored when this is all done."

Oller later added: "There is no inherent virtue in compromise unless it achieves a quality result, and we are not achieving a quality result at the Capitol."

Political opponents of Davis marched outside the historic Guild Theater in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood, demanding the governor's removal from office for allegedly mismanaging state finances.

To the discomfort of Davis aides, Jennings began by asking the governor about the recall drive. The shouted chants of recall supporters were faintly audible to some in the audience: "Corrupt! Dishonest! Dump Davis now!"

But, reflecting the seemingly slow pace of the recall campaign's attempt to gather nearly 900,000 signatures by September to put the issue to a statewide vote, the massive anti-Davis rally promised by recall supporters attracted dozens, not hundreds.

Other protesters included people dependent on state services who marched back and forth outside the theater, chanting: "No more cuts!"

Davis just won reelection in November and the constitution prevents him from seeking a third term as governor. Still, there is a campaign quality to his recent events, aides concede, and the aim is to win votes -- in the Legislature.

"It's an attempt to drum up support for the budget and get people outside the Capitol to put some pressure on the Legislature to get the job done," said Steven Maviglio, Davis' press secretary.

The ultimate success of Davis' efforts remains in question. Even senior Davis aides acknowledge that the governor's ability to pressure lawmakers is limited by his unpopularity and lack of political capital. And Republicans are steaming over what they describe as the governor's political gamesmanship.

"Davis has been running around the state asking where the Republican budget proposals are," said Peter DeMarco, spokesman for Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks. "His memory must have slipped away from him, since there are two viable budget proposals out there from Senate and Assembly Republicans. It's political grandstanding."

Davis has also angered some Republicans by singling out Cox and Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte (Rancho Cucamonga) and urging editorial writers and opinion makers to pressure them to support tax increases.

"It's one thing to strong-arm a legislator behind closed doors, but it's never productive to embarrass them in public," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant who served as a communications strategist to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "He needs to find a way to build support for his proposal without publicly embarrassing the people he needs to help pass a budget."

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