- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2003

Just three years ago, California Gov. Gray Davis widely was considered the brightest star in the Democratic Party.

Presiding over Silicon Valley’s technology boom, he could boast of a 62 percent job-approval rating, among the highest of any California governor. He was on the short list of potential running mates for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential ticket. And California had a $12 billion budget surplus, leaving the pleasant task of figuring out what to do with all those riches.

Those happy days are long gone.

An energy crisis in 2001 was followed by a budget disaster that produced a $38 billion deficit this year. California’s bond rating is now the worst in the country. This has all led to Mr. Davis setting records for unpopularity.

The nonpartisan California Field Poll put Mr. Davis’ approval rating Friday at 20 percent, the lowest figure in the poll’s 54-year history. Nearly three-fourths of Californians polled say they disapprove of the job he is doing as governor, and 58 percent of likely voters want him recalled from office in an Oct. 7 special election — up from 51 percent last month.

California political observers attribute Mr. Davis’ remarkable fall from grace to bad luck and poor state stewardship in the face of the energy crisis combined with a scorched-earth political manner that has left him with few friends despite 30 years in the upper echelon of state politics.

“He’s being hung out to dry,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “You don’t see any rallies of support. This guy just does not generate passion within his party.”

Indeed, exit polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times last November — when Mr. Davis was re-elected with 47 percent of the vote — showed his support was remarkably shallow. Of those who voted, 61 percent said they didn’t even like Mr. Davis. His victory could be attributed to the fact that more voters, 64 percent, expressed a dislike for his opponent, conservative political neophyte Bill Simon.

“People don’t hate Davis because he’s boring,” said a veteran California political strategist. “They hate him because he represents everything they don’t like about politics. They see him as a slave to fund raising and the polls. They see him as someone who puts his own political interests before the state’s.

“He could juggle watermelons. He could eat fire. He could do stand-up comedy, and the voters still wouldn’t like him,” the consultant said.

Veteran political consultant Joe Cerell, who ran Mr. Davis’ first statewide campaign in 1974 — an unsuccessful run in the Democratic primary for treasurer — said the governor “has never been a warm and cuddly” politician who touches the hearts of voters.

Unlike former President Bill Clinton, whom Mr. Davis is now leaning on to save his political career, Mr. Davis loathes “working the rope line” and glad-handing with the partisans who show up to hear him speak. Mr. Davis has considered that a waste of time, Mr. Cerell said, preferring to work the cell phone for donors on the way to the next event.

That eagerness to raise campaign funds has also helped alienate Mr. Davis from voters, and has led to accusations of a “pay to play” policy in California.

In May 2002, during the run-up to the governor’s re-election campaign, a Davis-appointed commission ruled that homeowners must install copper water pipes, rather than cheaper plastic ones. Within days, the pipefitters union donated $260,000 to his campaign.

The state’s prison guards spent $2.3 million on Mr. Davis in 1998, and the governor later approved a 34 percent pay raise plan that will eventually cost the state $1 billion annually.

Last year, Mr. Davis signed a $95 million contract with Oracle to supply software to the state government without taking bids from other companies. The state auditor later determined that the software wasn’t needed and would actually cost California taxpayers $41 million.

Days after Mr. Davis awarded the contract, an Oracle lobbyist donated $25,000 to the governor’s campaign, handing the check directly to a functionary on the state’s payroll.

The Davis campaign denies any quid pro quo, pointing out that Mr. Davis also took money from people on the other side of those issues. But that fact isn’t necessarily comforting to many in both parties now in favor of the recall.

“His own party has deserted him, and the Republicans hate him,” Mr. Whalen said.

Mr. Davis also has a reputation as a politician with nasty campaign instincts. In the 1992 race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, Mr. Davis likened Dianne Feinstein to hotel magnate Leona “Queen of Mean”Helmsley, in a widely panned campaign ad.

In the 1998 race for governor, the majority of Mr. Davis’ ads consisted of blistering attacks on Republican Dan Lungren.

The last straw, however, might have been in 2000, when Mr. Davis spent $10 million on attack ads for a race he wasn’t even in — the Republican primary between Mr. Simon and popular former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Mr. Davis attacked Mr. Riordan for months, killing the liberal Republican’s candidacy and assuring a runoff against the conservative Mr. Simon in the general election, an easier opponent.

“That’s when he broke the rules,” Mr. Whalen said. “Nobody had ever done that before. Voters started thinking, ‘Who does this guy think he is to do something like this?’”

With so much on the line, Democrats may yet rally to Mr. Davis’ side, if indeed they ever really left — a notion that Mr. Cerell clings to. At the very least, Mr. Davis will soon have a Republican opponent to attack, Mr. Cerell said, be it actor Arnold Schwarzenegger or one of the several California politicians he knows well, like Mr. Simon.

“Give it until Labor Day,” Mr. Cerell said, predicting Mr. Davis will eventually emerge victorious. “If he’s still flailing around by then, then I’m wrong.”

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