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Davis Says Circumstances Beat Him, Hints of Return

November 17, 2003|Jenifer Warren and Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — After five years in office, Gray Davis leaves the Capitol today on an ignominious note, the only California governor ever recalled by voters. But far from being chastened, the 60-year-old Democrat has surprised longtime associates with a reaction that some characterize as deep denial of his fate.

He has hinted at a political comeback -- sometimes in a joking fashion, at other times seriously -- noting that his removal from office so early in his second term means he still could serve another term as governor, said people close to Davis, all speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The historic humiliation he has suffered might have shamed other public figures into shunning the spotlight and slinking into oblivion. Davis has prosecuted his final weeks with a high-profile flourish, winning praise from adversaries for his gracious dealings with incoming governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and for his energetic response to the Southern California wildfires. With a touch of macabre humor, aides have referred to the final flurry of activity as the governor's "I'm Not Dead Yet Tour."

In part, Davis' reaction to his fate -- a response that even some close aides consider slightly surreal -- is driven by his personal analysis of the recall. In two interviews with The Times, and in other comments to reporters, Davis has depicted his downfall not as a personal repudiation, but as the result of a political storm set in motion by the California electricity crisis in 2001 and whipped into even greater intensity by a bad economy that has damaged the popularity of governors and mayors across the country.

"You know, this last election just wasn't in the cards," said Davis, calmly dissecting his defeat. "I don't think there's anything we could have done differently against the opponent we had, other than -- not just in the campaign but years ago -- had a more aggressive communications strategy with voters. I think that would have led to a reservoir of goodwill that would have stood me in better stead once these external events happened."

Davis has begun preparing for a return to private life. He and his wife, Sharon, recently paid a visit to California Highway Patrol headquarters, for example. There, each took a lesson from the experts in a souped-up Ford Crown Victoria, reacquainting themselves with driving in the real world -- something Davis hasn't had to do since the early 1980s, aides said.

And whether motivated by thoughts of a political comeback, the judgment of history or a recall-inspired recognition of his shortcomings as governor, Davis has reached out to some former adversaries.

He has written warm notes to lawmakers -- and frequent critics, like Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) -- praising their work and legislative achievements.

In an interview, Davis lavished praised on Burton. "I've had some wonderful conversations with him the last 30 days," said Davis. "For all his bravado and bluster, he's a remarkable human being and has been responsible for some very substantial achievements which I've been pleased to sign into law."

Over the last five years, Davis and Burton were at odds almost constantly. In the interview, however, Davis said: "I think John would agree the legislative achievements the two of us worked on were extraordinary."

"But just because I like and respect him, I would have preferred to have a better personal relationship," he said. "I wished I had developed a stronger relationship with him, and I hope I can in the years to come."

The loss of what he has described as his dream job has clearly saddened Davis. When asked about leaving office this week -- during a ceremony naming the governor's office suite after former Gov. Pat Brown -- he fought back tears.

Still, his wife insists he is doing fine, weighing job options, saying goodbyes and looking ahead to life as an ordinary citizen.

"People seem to think we're running around with our heads held low, crying in our soup," Sharon Davis said in an interview. "That's not the case. This isn't the outcome we wanted, but Gray is a task-oriented person, and he's busy setting up his new life."

And both in public and in private conversations with longtime advisors, Davis has rejected the widely held view that the recall was a repudiation of his leadership and personal style as governor.

Davis' advisors -- speaking on the condition of anonymity out of a desire to spare their former boss such a public repudiation -- have offered much more critical assessments of Davis' failed governorship in long, emotional conversations.

Some say Davis should forget about a comeback.

He should "get over whatever kind of denial he might be in, accept some responsibility for what happened and realize his political career has run its course," said one associate.

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