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Blacks Not Yet on Davis' Bandwagon

The governor needs their support, and faces a challenge energizing a key constituency.

September 19, 2003|Matea Gold and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

Ask Paulette Davis about California's governor and she's none too enthusiastic.

"The man has no personality, OK?" said Davis, a San Francisco transit worker.

But when it comes to the effort to oust Gov. Gray Davis from office, she has some strong opinions.

"I think it stinks," she said. "I think it came from the Bush administration and they're trying to steal California."

Black voters such as her embody both the challenge and the opportunity facing the governor as he attempts to rally African Americans to his defense in the recall election.

Usually a loyal Democratic constituency, many black voters are instead frustrated with the governor's centrist policies and unimpressed with his administration, according to political analysts and recent interviews. But they also view the recall as a partisan maneuver to push Democrats out of office.

Their approval affects Davis' political fortunes. In 1998, black voters made up 13% of the electorate and Davis romped to a 20-point victory. When he ran for reelection last year, however, African Americans made up only 4% of the vote -- an absence of 800,000 voters that contributed to his narrow win.

With Californians split evenly on the recall, a large black turnout could prove decisive.

This week, Davis attempted to harness anti-recall sentiment as he made his most direct appeals yet to African American voters.

In appearances with former President Clinton and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Davis cast the election as an extension of a larger power struggle between Democrats and Republicans. He invoked the voting debacle in Florida in the 2000 presidential campaign, when many African Americans complained that voting irregularities kept them from casting ballots.

"We're going to stop them, right here, right now!" Davis told about 500 people gathered at the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco on Tuesday.

His pitch got a boost when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week to delay the election, citing the same kind of punch-card voting machines that were at the center of the debate in Florida.

Davis' message will help energize black voters still angry about the results of the last presidential campaign, some political experts said.

"Any time you remind African Americans about Florida, that helps Gray Davis," said Los Angeles political consultant Kerman Maddox. "You get off of Gray and on the injustice in the system."

But he and other analysts believe the governor still must do more to warm African American voters to his cause.

"People are unimpressed with him," said Regina Freer, a professor of politics at Occidental College. "There's a sense that he hasn't done enough for African Americans."

On Thursday, the Black Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles County announced its endorsement of Republican recall candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying Davis has failed to improve schools in poor neighborhoods.

Davis confronted the dissatisfaction in person Thursday during a rally with Jackson at Los Angeles Southwest College. Standing in an outdoor quad, the governor beamed as the civil rights leader led a largely black audience of 250 in a loud chant against the recall and Proposition 54, an initiative that would prevent the state from collecting some types of racial data.

But when Jackson mentioned Davis, the enthusiasm gave way to mild applause -- and several clear voices of dissent.

One young man booed loudly, while a young woman shouted, "Arnold Schwarzenegger!"

Later, as Davis was addressing the audience, opposition bubbled to the surface again.

When the governor argued that recalls should be reserved for grave misdeeds -- "it means you have to do something terrible" -- one young man shouted out, "But you have done something terrible!"

Davis stumbled slightly before saying, "Well then, you know, we'll let ... the voters will be the judge of that. But I don't believe it rises to the level of overturning 8 million votes recorded last November."

Part of the tension, some analysts said, is consternation about Davis' recent decision to sign a measure allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. That tapped into anxiety that the political influence of the state's growing Latino population is outstripping that of blacks.

"There's this discussion at churches and barbershops and shopping centers that, 'Boy, he sure seems to be doing a lot for Latinos, but we're not sure what he's done for African Americans,' " Maddox said.

The candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who would be California's first Latino governor in 128 years, also has exacerbated those tensions. Bustamante's overt appeals to Latinos have been unsettling to some blacks.

During a town hall meeting at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw shopping mall last week, Davis was pressed on his record and his commitment to African Americans.

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