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Sad but Accepting, Davis Muses on His Loss

October 10, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Facing his final weeks in office, Gov. Gray Davis said Thursday that he realizes "people got tired of me after a while," but added that he would like to remain in public service when he steps down.

In his first interview since losing the recall election, Davis said he was just beginning to think about the future after a defeat he described as stemming from a popular desire for change.

He might try to find a post with a nonprofit organization working on education or environmental issues or providing mentors to young people, he said.

Davis spoke philosophically about his defeat and the man who beat him, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I'm proud to have spent my entire adult life in some form of public service," he told The Times. "I believe it is a high calling. On the other hand there is no requirement that elected officials be steeped in the intimate details of the job they're seeking."

"Gov. Schwarzenegger, if he has good instincts and good people around him, can do a capable job," he said. "I wish the new governor well. I want things to get better for California."

Davis also offered a reflection on his tenure that could serve as a warning to the governor-elect:

Former Gov. Pete "Wilson's people mentioned this to me, and I didn't appreciate it for two or three years: It's easy to deal with the tasks you know are before you," Davis said. "It's harder to deal with the unexpected.

"The electricity crisis was unexpected. The dot-com collapse was unexpected. No one even asked me a question about electricity in 1999 -- not just a reporter, not one human being. Two years later we had a problem that was not on anyone's radar screen.

"I had to learn about it on the fly, and I had to learn about it in a very partisan environment," he added.

Famously stoic throughout his career, Davis fought back tears as he talked about his election night concession speech and how he had wanted to spare his family the pain of the moment.

The speech "wasn't hard to give, because those were the sentiments in my heart," Davis said in the back seat of his limousine just after landing at the Sacramento airport. As he tried to continue, tears filled his eyes, his voice shook, his face quivered and he turned away twice to compose himself.

Finally, he said: "But it was just hard to give, because I was trying to keep my family strong."

Later, in a final meeting at the Capitol, Davis exchanged hugs and handshakes and passed out tissues to crying Cabinet members.

During the interview, he acknowledged the difficulty of handling his inglorious end as governor. "This isn't easy," he said, while adding, "I don't feel bitter.

"I had a great 30-year ride and a wonderful opportunity to serve the people of this state. Now the people have said they want somebody else to govern."

Davis said he was reminded of something that former Gov. Jerry Brown had told him when he served as Brown's chief of staff in the late 1970s.

"Nobody has the right to be governor," Davis said, paraphrasing his former boss. "You have an opportunity to run and ask people to put their trust in you for a finite period of time. And people either respond to that request or they don't."

Davis added: "They can change their mind and withdraw their permission after they've once given it. That's the nature of democracy in California. I knew that going in. And I know that going out."

He conceded that his image as a wooden campaigner may have hurt him. "I'm not Bill Clinton. I am who I am, and I'm not going to change," he said.

But, he said, to a large extent, victory or defeat in politics is a matter of circumstance.

"Winning in '98 was in part due to the fact that I was in the right place at the right time," he said. Davis was lieutenant governor when he ran, and "in the public's mind, it was the perfect point to provide continuity in an economy that was soaring."

By contrast, "in 2003, largely because of the national economic downturn, I was blamed for many things that had gone wrong in people's lives, whether or not I was personally culpable.

"When the average person looks at Sacramento," he said, "they expect the governor to fix things."

At the same time, he said, in Schwarzenegger he faced an opponent whom he knew would be formidable. "I think from the moment Arnold Schwarzenegger got in this race, our options really narrowed," he said. "It's like Ronald Reagan -- he was in people's subconscious for many years. People think they know him. A celebrity with lots of money is a powerful force in California politics."

Davis said his best hope of survival would have been for Schwarzenegger to have stumbled badly, but that didn't happen.

"He really didn't make any mistakes," Davis said. "He had a few stumbles early on. But his celebrity really allowed him to circumvent the political press. He didn't need to get known. It didn't seem to matter what his platform was as long as he didn't make any mistakes."

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