California’s Gray Politics

California’s Gray Politics

Governer Davis may win re-election only because the GOP’s Simon is such a loser.


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.'”

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.

During his first three years in office Davis gave liberals and progressives plenty to carp about, starting with a law-and-order stance arguably to the right of his Republican predecessor. But the real disillusionment jelled during last year’s power crisis. After some initial populist public posturing, including a threat to seize plants, Davis took a distinctly corporate-friendly line. The state hiked electricity rates an average of 30 percent and used ratepayer funds to underwrite multibillion-dollar bailouts for the private utilities. At one point, Davis’s top two spinmeisters on the power issue (former Clinton adviser Mark Fabiani and former Gore adviser Chris Lehane) were simultaneously on the payroll of one of the private utility monopolies. In the end, Davis wound up negotiating costly long-term power contracts to keep the lights on. As a result, California is now paying as much as ten times the market price for electricity. The budget surplus Davis enjoyed at the onset of his administration is now a $24 billion deficit–and still growing. With money for social spending zapped by the electric bills, the state’s healthcare, housing and transportation program are collapsing.

And it all rebounds against Davis. “The voters have a snapshot of him in their mind from the time of the energy crisis,” says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. “And they don’t like what they see. They see a governor who did very little to prepare them or warn them of what was coming, and they were left saying, ‘How the hell did this happen?'”

Davis–a legendary rainmaker who bags a consistent million dollars a month in campaign contributions–is also dogged by a public perception that he’s always on the make for money. Indeed, in mid-July his campaign announced it had crossed the $50 million mark for this year’s re-election bid. That’s a new record for any American gubernatorial candidate. And the last record-holder was Davis himself, when he pocketed $35 million in his 1998 run. “For Gray Davis, being governor is just a hobby, something he does a couple of hours a week,” says leading progressive policy advocate Harvey Rosenfeld. “He spends the rest of his time raising money.” Simon’s boardroom connections should make him vulnerable at a time of intense national focus on corporate wrongdoing, but Davis’s nonstop harvesting of campaign cash allows the money issue to work equally against him. One example: Some of Simon’s first TV spots humorously show one of Davis’s office cleaners being shocked at how much paperwork Davis has left unattended in favor of money-raising. And Davis has collected substantial sums from some of the worst corporate malefactors now in the headlines, including Enron ($120,000), WorldCom ($109,000), Global Crossing ($120,000) and Adelphia ($52,500).

Meanwhile, substantial portions of the progressive Democratic base are dismayed that the endless flow of cash into the Governor’s coffers lubricates a pro-corporate and disappointingly conservative policy agenda. “Some centrist Democrats, like the DLC, at least have a proactive policy approach,” says Carrick. “But Gray’s definition of centrism is to stay out of traffic. Consequently, he has real problems at every level of his base: labor, minorities, environmentalists.” He adds, “We could have a replay of 1994, when Democrats stayed home and Wilson got re-elected.”

If Davis’s tenure has left progressive Democrats, and even moderates, with many reasons to criticize, it has at the same time given them little to cheer. Yes, the Governor is steadfastly pro-choice. And he just signed an anti-global warming bill that he had been waffling on. The Governor also kicked off his administration with a special session of the legislature dedicated to school reforms–though it left little political trace except bitterness among the teachers’ union and a massive, ACLU-led civil rights suit alleging state neglect of poorer schools. But on just about every Democratic core issue, Davis has wobbled, punted or defected. As of early July, the Sierra Club, usually a slam-dunk for California Democrats, was still withholding its endorsement of Davis. Environmentalists were furious to learn that California’s powerful timber industry had been exempted from proposed new tax hikes, and that the same industry, once a GOP stalwart, had lavished more than $100,000 in contributions on the Governor. It’s a disturbingly familiar pattern. Earlier this year, investigations blossomed when the Oracle Corporation gave a $25,000 contribution to Davis shortly after his administration purchased $95 million of Oracle software that no state agency seemed to want (the Governor has since returned the money).

Nothing reveals Democratic disillusionment with Davis better than his incestuous relationship with the 28,000-member California prison guards’ union–known as CCPOA–which was previously a political and funding mainstay for Pete Wilson. During the 1998 campaign Davis performed a feat of political magic: By convincing CCPOA president Don Novey that he would be Singapore-hard on crime, Davis lured the guards into the Democratic camp, along with $2.3 million of their campaign funding. The results of this alliance have been disastrous. “Simply put, Gray Davis has been worse on criminal justice issues than Pete Wilson,” says Joe Domanick, senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at USC. “He’s imposed a litmus test on naming judges, who must be pro-death-penalty and pro-three-strikes-and-you’re-out. He even vetoed a bill that merely called for a review study of the three-strikes law.” As the state was sinking into the sea of red ink generated by the overpriced long-term energy contracts, Davis handed the guards’ union a 34 percent salary increase. He also loosened work rules, which has resulted in a 20 percent increase in sick time claimed by the guards, some of whom now make more than $125,000 a year.

To be fair, California liberals and progressives have to accept much of the responsibility for their impotence in influencing Statehouse policy. Up through the 1960s, a network of left-of-center organizations under the California Democratic Council exerted powerful grassroots influence over state party policy. Then, starting in the mid-1970s, Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy played a similar role. But since the fading of CED almost twenty years ago, California progressives have made no visible attempt to reorganize. Liberal interest groups have played much more the role of predictable satellites than sources of grassroots pressure within the party. “It was way back in March, a day or two after the primary, and you had abortion rights groups like ours lining up to give an early endorsement to Gray Davis,” says a Southern California feminist advocate. “Don’t you think we could have at least waited a month or two and maybe tried to extract something from Gray? Talk about setting ourselves up to be taken for granted!”

But Davis is banking on the fact that liberals have no place else to go. “This is not going to be Gray Davis versus an opponent with no name,” says Davis’s closest aide and strategist, Garry South. “The voters are going to have to choose between Gray Davis and Bill Simon, and in the end they will choose Davis.”

Just as Davis inspires little enthusiasm from Democratic core activists, Simon’s sometimes simplistic pro-life, antiregulatory conservatism and his amateurish campaigning run the risk of alienating big chunks of moderate suburban Republicans. Simon has even less appeal across party lines. And when it comes to California’s emerging bloc of Latino voters, Simon confronts the bitter legacy left behind by Pete Wilson’s support for Proposition 187–a major catalyst in registering a record number of new Latino voters as Democrats. Simon did take the bold move of kicking off his TV ad campaign with a Spanish-language spot aimed directly at those new voters; at a press conference unveiling the ads, Simon said it was “to highlight the priority that I’m placing on the Latino community.” But when asked for a concrete example, Simon noted his position favoring a reduction of the capital gains tax–a position likely to have little appeal to the average new Latino voter. On the other hand, while California Latinos have been voting 7-to-3 for Democrats, it’s hard to predict just how many will feel moved to turn out for Davis.

In an unusual move in early summer, the White House intervened directly in Simon’s campaign, forcing a transfer of greater power to millionaire adviser Gerry Parsky, an intimate of George W. Bush and his top adviser, Karl Rove. Two former Reaganaut old-timers, Lyn Nofziger and Ed Rollins, were also dealt into the mix. The official spin was that as the Simon campaign became truly competitive with Davis‚ it was time to bring in “the adults.” And, along with them, the President, who is scheduled to come to California to stump for Simon this month.

All this bigfooting didn’t go down very well, however, with many party activists. Local Republicans complain that with Parksy and other out-of-town power brokers now in charge, the field operation and its funding are being neglected. The turmoil has only continued with the Simon camp naming its fourth campaign manager in as many months.

Republican skittishness about their own candidate was starkly revealed in mid-July, when Simon’s coffers seemed to have only $5 million on hand, compared with Davis’s $32 million. Further compounding Simon’s troubles was his continued unwillingness to release his tax returns, even after he was publicly named as a possible tax cheat in the Wall Street Journal article. When pressed by California reporters on the issue, Simon would only say, “I believe everybody looks to be tax efficient. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.” Simon only made things worse when, under intense pressure, he finally relented and issued a partial and limited release of returns, raising more questions than answering them. “This is all just PhD stupid,” says a disgusted top state GOP official.

The more thoughtful among the Republicans are worried about what a Simon loss would mean. “Nothing less than our entire future is at stake in November,” says the same GOP official. “As it is, we hold only one statewide office, secretary of state. If we screw up and lose big time again, like we did in ’98, we won’t have the governor’s chair, we won’t have any statewide office and we might not even have a third of the legislature. If that comes to pass, there’ll be no reason for Republicans to get up in the morning.” Already, Arnold Schwarzenegger is making celebrated suggestions that he will run for governor in 2006, implicitly conceding a Simon defeat.

With the two major-party candidates inspiring little excitement or loyalty, the November election ought to be fertile territory for third-party movements like the California Green Party. But while recent statewide polls show a surge of support for third-party contenders, Green gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, a Marxist-Leninist turned socially responsible investment banker, has yet to emerge from anonymity; his support is estimated at no more than 4 or 5 percent. In a state where politics is almost exclusively played out in two dozen media markets, all this means 100 more days of a brutal, relentless and negative “air war,” with both sides eventually spending a million–or twice that–per week on TV ads that will do nothing to further any genuine policy debate. Fought out on that terrain, and with Simon raising maybe 25-30 percent less than Davis, the incumbent should probably still be considered the favorite.

As for progressives and other disillusioned Democrats, they have few appetizing choices. Some may be inspired to go to the polls to approve an Election Day voter registration measure (see sidebar, page 23). When it comes to the gubernatorial race, they can vote for the Green candidate. Or they can sit it out, risking a Republican victory. Or they can hold their noses and vote for Gray Davis. Tom Hayden, who retired from the legislature last year, cites his frustration with Davis but says he will nevertheless vote to re-elect him. “But the governor’s race is not where we should be focusing our energies,” says Hayden. “This is a time when we should concentrate our efforts on the legislative races, trying to elect as progressive a body as possible. That is a much better hope to get the policy changes we want.”

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