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Need for Upper Hand Demands That Both Sides Seek Davis' Job

Despite the daunting problems facing the governor, Republican and Democratic parties see the post as vital to state, national prestige.

September 11, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

The governor of California faces a continuing huge budget shortfall, a bitterly divided Legislature and a political process overshadowed by voter referendums, but for the two major political parties, the Oct. 7 recall election still offers an enticing prize.

The governorship carries with it thousands of political appointments, a megaphone to spread the party's message, and a potential fund-raising windfall. The patronage at the governor's disposal could solidify a dominant position in the state in the case of Democrats, or help a struggling California Republican Party regain lost ground.

Pride is also at stake -- for both sides.

Republicans are shut out of every statewide elective office in California. "It's hard to tout yourself as America's majority party when you're shut out in California," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, who worked for former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican.

Democrats face a shutout of their own if Gov. Gray Davis is defeated. They would hold the governor's office in not one of the four largest states: California, Texas, New York and Florida.

Losing the governor's office would be tantamount to losing "a national surrogate," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "We don't have the governorship in Texas, we don't have the governorship in Florida -- where you have a mega-voice -- and we don't have the White House. So California is a beachhead in our strategy, and we have to have it in the Democratic column."

For all those reasons, both parties are clear on one point: They would rather have the office than not.

"People say 'Why would we want to inherit all these problems?' " said Ken Khachigian, a longtime Republican strategist and former aide to Ronald Reagan. "A Republican governor could start appointing judges and fill hundreds and hundreds of positions. You take over management of all state agencies.... When a governor holds a gigantic fund-raiser, a lot of people are going to go to it because we now run the state."

A governor's reach is enormous. Davis appoints up to 3,500 people to about 300 boards and commissions -- from the California State Board of Education to the Landscape Architect Technical Committee. He has made more than 300 judicial appointments in his tenure.

Holding the governorship also helps in wooing core constituencies at election time. In a campaign stop last weekend in Alhambra, Davis told an Asian American audience that, "more Chinese Americans, more Korean Americans, more Filipino Americans, more Vietnamese Americans have served in positions of importance under the Davis administration as a percentage of all my appointments than any other governor in history. And if you will retain me as governor we will continue to go forward and not backward."

Each party sees the recall as important to policy and political ambitions. For Republicans, the governor's office "carries immense symbolic importance," Whalen said. Before Davis came into power in 1999, the Republicans had held the office for 16 consecutive years under Govs. Wilson and George Deukmejian.

"Who do people go to now for commentary?" said K.B. Forbes, a Republican strategist who worked for Bill Simon's abortive recall campaign. "There are no statewide figures. The Republican Party has a vacuum."

Republicans are in the minority in both houses of the Legislature. If they win the governor's office, they will be suddenly empowered to veto legislation and thwart a Democratic agenda from taking hold.

"When you have a person in your own party [in the governor's office] you have a goalie -- someone with the ability to veto bad legislation," said Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks.

"What we have in California today is one-party rule," he said, "and when you have the corner office held by a person of the same party that controls the Senate and Assembly, what you see is an arrogance of power and all the really bad bills getting through."

For their part, Democrats fear a Republican governor would impose a more conservative agenda, using executive orders to unravel the work of the past administration.

"If a Republican governor took control, in 90 days you could unwind by executive order much of the significant pieces of legislation that had been put into effect," said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

Whether control of the governor's office would swing California to one side or another in the presidential race is more murky. Democrats won the state in the last three presidential elections under both Democratic and Republican governors. Indeed, in five of 13 elections since 1948, when Democratic nominee Harry Truman won the state even though Republican Earl Warren was governor, the candidate who has won California has represented a different party from the governor.

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