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The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

How Davis' Lack of Leadership Led to His Early Downfall

October 20, 2003|George Skelton

Sacramento--Gov. Gray Davis must feel like a condemned man on death row. All his appeals are exhausted, and he's now waiting for the rap on the door to be led off to the gallows.

That will come by Nov. 15, the deadline for counting absentee votes and certifying the execution.

Many jurors -- about 45% of us -- felt that Davis' crime didn't fit his punishment. Besides, the proper time for sentencing was last November.

But it doesn't matter. The other 55% have demanded the governor's head. Moreover, nobody's arguing that he isn't guilty.

The question for today -- and for future historians -- is how did a governor with such promise go so bad. How could somebody "with experience money can't buy" win the office in a 20-point landslide, then five years later become the first statewide official in California history to be recalled by voters?

These are not two reasons:

* His policies. On most issues -- education, crime, environment, guns, abortion, health care, even taxes -- Davis was in the California mainstream. He hurt himself while triggering a car tax increase, but another governor could have squeezed that same trigger without mishandling it. He overspent -- caving in to liberals -- but for programs the public wanted.

Indeed, Davis improved children's educations and teaching conditions.

* His "dull" personality. Predecessors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian weren't any more charismatic than Davis. But each served two, fairly productive terms and went through tough times, especially Wilson.

Davis' failings were these:

He lacked three assets crucial for any California governor. They are long-range vision, core convictions and people skills. A governor can survive without one, maybe two, but not all three. He must have them to lead. And voters want a leader.

Only a few times -- notably on education early in his regime -- did Davis try to lead. Mostly, he was incapable or unwilling.

Looking at each Davis deficiency:

* He thought small.

California always has needed -- and today seems to demand -- big thinkers: a governor who thinks about how California is going to handle 46 million people in 2020. Where will they live and how polluted will their air be? Where will they get enough water? How will they get to work? What work? Will their children be priced out of college?

Voters stressed out over high mortgages, sitting in traffic jams and experiencing a deterioration in the California lifestyle do think about such things and get angry.

They look for bold leaders. Davis was a risk-averse incrementalist.

* He had no ideology. It seemed his only core commitment was to reelection.

Sure, he was committed to abortion rights and the death penalty. These are easy calls.

Where was he on the large questions of government services vs. private enterprise, environmental protection vs. business development, labor vs. profit? How the tax system can be made more stable and fair?

An absence of core convictions leads to indecision, one of the Capitol's biggest gripes about Davis. Indecision on appointments, on policy and during sudden crises -- in an energy meltdown or revenue collapse.

Davis drove legislators and interest groups batty. He either was trying to extract an extra concession or ignoring them. They couldn't tell where he stood. He was all over the place, from year to year, depending on his perceived political status.

A classic example was the legislation to provide driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. He vetoed such bills for two straight years -- the second proposal had tough background checks -- then signed a weaker measure this year while pandering to Latinos.

It was canoe politics -- paddling a little on the left, a little on the right and trying to keep going down the middle. This canoe capsized.

* He wouldn't schmooze. Worse, he was insensitive and rude.

Davis was late to everything. He seemed to delight in not returning phone calls. Never tried to build relationships with legislators or with voters.

Because a centrist's policy moves tend to displease his party's base -- in this case liberals -- people skills become all the more vital.

Davis actually can be charming, but he didn't think the personal touch mattered much. Nor did communicating through news conferences or civic speeches. What really mattered, he thought, were avoiding heat, being sure-footed and raising enough money to bury an opponent in TV ads.

His obsessive money-grubbing hurt him badly. It created the image of a corrupt governor too busy panhandling special interests to mind the public's business.

He also was an insecure nitpicker who had trouble delegating but rarely held Cabinet meetings.

For years, Davis was lucky and -- as he liked to say -- underestimated. But he overestimated himself, and his luck ran out.

By the public trial, he had few friends and little credibility. An easy mark for the prosecution.

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