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California's Gray Politics | The Nation

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California's Gray Politics

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On Valentine's Day, two of California's former political sweethearts had a nasty little spat. Incumbent Democratic Governor Gray Davis was meeting in his Capitol office with Wayne Johnson, the militant leader of the California Teachers Association, which had forked over $1.3 million for Davis's 1998 election campaign. Since then relations between the Governor and the union--as is the case with much of the state's liberal Democratic base--had curdled. Johnson was hoping to sway Davis back toward the teachers' camp on a series of educational issues, but the Governor's mind was elsewhere. "We were just sitting there and talking," Johnson later told the press, "and he, just out of the blue, said, 'You know, I really need a million dollars from you guys.'"

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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The public surfacing of the story was damaging enough. But Johnson's union is so far withholding anything more than token cash support for Davis's re-election bid this November. Davis, in response to the teachers' union action, successfully killed a union-backed bill that would have given teachers unprecedented say over curriculum and textbooks. Now, says a teachers' union official in Los Angeles, the feeling is: "Let Gray go out and ring his own damn doorbells. No way in hell we're gonna be his ground troops. Not this time. Not ever again."

That such open internecine warfare should break out among Democrats just three months before a general election can't be happy news for Davis, who until recently was seen as a shoo-in for re-election. A familiar name in state politics for three decades--he served as chief of staff to Governor Jerry Brown, as a Los Angeles-area assemblyman, as lieutenant governor and as state controller before winning the Statehouse in a 1998 landslide that nearly buried the state GOP--Davis took office with 60 percent-plus popularity ratings. No sooner was he sworn in than the chatter began about his potential for a shot at the White House. Though he took a staggering jolt from last year's power crisis, Davis barreled into the current campaign virtually selecting his opponent. Spending almost $12 million on TV ads and stunning political observers with his audacity, he intervened directly in the Republican primary, bashing and shredding former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate--often attacking him from the right. With Riordan out of the way, Davis wound up with the Republican candidate he figured was easier to beat: millionaire businessman Bill Simon Jr.

Simon, who has never held elected office, is a political nobody. With a robotic stump style, an uncanny resemblance to Clark Kent and a right-wing policy agenda, about the most that can be said about him is that his father was a Nixon and Ford Cabinet secretary (and a major funder of rightist think tanks) and that Junior's picture recently appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal as one of dozens of people identified by the IRS as having taken advantage of tax shelters the government claims may have violated tax laws. By midnight of March 5, as Simon was claiming his primary-night victory, the political smart money--including that of seasoned Republicans--was already anticipating a Davis avalanche in November. I sat in the hotel bar that hosted the GOP Election Night party and shared drinks with a moderate Republican strategist who glumly predicted that Davis would win by a twenty-point margin.

Now, five months later, Simon is still an undefined bumbler who can't get the most basic issues straight. And yet, poll after poll shows Gray Davis unable to establish a substantial lead. Not until late July did Davis even come out a few points on top of his contender. What should have been a Davis cakewalk has threatened to turn into a much closer than expected fight. It's not that Bill Simon is winning. It's that Gray Davis may win only because Simon continues to be such a loser. And if Davis does win, it's likely to bring little rejoicing from state Democrats.

Progressive Democrats can't remember a time in recent history when they have been so disappointed with--if not just plain alienated from--their state standard-bearer. Davis cultivated a calculated centrism throughout his career, but labor, environmentalists and liberal activists originally were cautiously optimistic that as governor, he would be a step forward from the often meanspirited Pete Wilson, a Republican. Now they are consumed with disappointment. Even Democrats give Davis only a 52 percent approval rating, while a sizable 34 percent turn thumbs down.

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