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Davis Responds to Fires as if Recall Never Happened

October 31, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Just weeks after voters effectively fired him, Gov. Gray Davis has thrown himself into the fight to contain Southern California's devastating wildfires and console its victims.

He has toured evacuation centers and visited burned-out neighborhoods. He has worked the phones to enlist assistance from neighboring states and the federal government, and been a near-constant presence on Southern California airwaves.

Some longtime critics are praising Davis for setting aside political considerations and for going out of his way to coordinate his response with Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. Davis and Schwarzenegger have talked by telephone every day this week and administration officials are briefing Schwarzenegger's advisors several times daily on developments, aides for both said.

"It would be very easy for Davis to be bitter and leave this all to subordinates or try to freeze Schwarzenegger out," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant. "It would be the easiest thing in the world for Davis to say, 'It's somebody else's problem now.' But he seems to be putting just as much of himself into this as he would under more normal political circumstances. He's doing the right thing."

In interviews this week, Davis and his aides said his energetic response was motivated by a sense of duty to people affected by the fires and his belief that the disaster summons government's highest responsibility: the protection of its citizens.

At the same time, the politically attuned governor also senses an opportunity to improve his image with Californians as he prepares to hand over power in mid-November to Schwarzenegger, senior aides said. Seen by many Californians as a calculating politician who fumbled the biggest crises of his tenure, Davis is intent on demonstrating the professionalism that he believes many Californians overlooked during his nearly five years as governor, senior aides said.

In passing, Davis has described the challenge of the fires as a "mini-Giuliani moment," a reference to New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on his city, said two senior aides, speaking on condition of anonymity. Giuliani also was an unpopular lame-duck executive at the time; the election to replace him was scheduled for the day of the attacks.

"He's hoping that now the [recall] politics have passed, he'll be judged purely on his work," said a senior Davis aide.

As much as Davis might have hoped that the fires would be a politics-free setting for his final days as governor, that hasn't entirely been the case. Several Republican elected officials in San Diego, led by Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine and Assemblyman Jay La Suer of La Mesa, have blamed Davis for delays in getting military aircraft involved in the fight against the San Diego-area fires.

In an interview, Davis declined to respond to the potshots, noting that he understood the anguish felt by Hunter, who lost his home.

"I feel it's my duty to spend every last moment working with the people who will put these fires out and working with the people who will put Californians' lives back together," Davis said.

Davis aides dismissed the criticism and downplayed suggestions that the governor was angling for political redemption.

"He's pouring his heart and soul and head into stopping the fires and getting relief to people affected by the fires," said Davis Cabinet Secretary Daniel Zingale. "I know the governor has a lot of gratitude to the people of California for having had the opportunity to serve, and the way he expresses gratitude is through hard work."

Schwarzenegger's representatives have been quick to praise efforts by Davis and his staff to keep them fully briefed on the fires and aid efforts.

"From what I've seen, his response has been measured and appropriate," Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said of Davis.

That response has played out on two fronts: in private, where Davis has spent hours each day talking with officials from the state Office of Emergency Services, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and other agencies and seeking assistance from fellow governors and federal officials; and in public, which has included visits to evacuation centers and fire-ravaged areas.

Davis has devoted much of his effort to creating one-stop centers where fire victims can fill out paperwork, deal with the required federal and state agencies, and receive other assistance. The first center opened Wednesday, and Davis hopes that the first federal checks will be distributed to fire victims by next week.

On Thursday, Davis visited injured firefighters in San Diego, stopped by the Office of Emergency Services' Southern California regional command center with Mike Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and gave several media interviews.

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