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Gray Davis: The Most Fearless Governor in America

12 minute read
Steve Lopez/Sacramento

Native Californians learn at an early age that it’s impossible to explain the place to the rest of the world, so why bother? Nobody believes it when Californians say they don’t sit around worrying about earthquakes and mudslides; that they don’t care when two professional football teams leave the state’s largest city inside of three months; or that in the world capital of nutcase extremists, the guy who really seemed like an odd duck a year ago was Gray Davis, a nerdy gubernatorial candidate who claimed he would govern from the center, of all places.

California has the highest and lowest elevations in the Lower 48, more rich people than anywhere else and more poor people too. Physically and cosmically, it is the fringe. So it was only natural that some natives were skeptical down to their thongs about a plodding career politician who claimed to be a moderate. But nine months into his first term, it appears that the New York City native wasn’t lying.

When Davis signed a head-turning bipartisan health-care-reform package into law last week–one that, among other things, expands coverage to include breast cancer and mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, creates a panel to review denial of coverage and gives patients the right to sue HMOs that don’t make “the health of the patient the bottom line”–he established what could become a national standard by which to judge reform in this area.

He also capped a string of successes that required knocking heads in Sacramento and left both Democrats and Republicans crying in the aisles, wondering what happened to the mousy pencil sharpener who was long ridiculed for having the perfect first name and a series of those anonymous government jobs like lieutenant governor and controller, which are somewhat like assistant manager at the K Mart. “It was ‘My way or the highway,'” says a Democratic legislator who had run-ins with Davis early on and found out that the buttoned-up, innocuous-looking Davis could cuss like a sailor. “Sharks are gray too, aren’t they?” asks an admirer, Democratic Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher.

California’s lefty Democrats whined that Davis abandoned them just when they could have steamrolled Republicans, with a majority in both houses along with the top job in the state for the first time in 16 years. Republicans carp about his grabbing headlines for initiatives set in motion by Republican predecessor Pete Wilson. Ticking off both parties while at the same time shaming them into action is the triple crown of nonpartisan, post-impeachment politics. But being in the middle isn’t necessarily easy. It’s like standing on a highway median strip–every time you step into traffic, someone is gunning for you.

“I suspect voters are not looking for rigid ideology when they vote for Governors,” Davis told TIME one recent afternoon in his office, where he was meticulously reading every word of the 842 bills that sat in a box before him, often exasperating staff with brainiac questions about missing segments of earlier drafts. “They want someone who will get things done.”

Assault weapons and “Saturday-night special” bans hailed as the toughest in the nation? Done. On-time budget? Done.

A controversial compact with 59 California Indian tribes restoring some casino-gaming rights that had been lost in a state supreme court decision? Done.

His pet education-reform package, including peer review for teachers, beefed-up reading programs and a mandatory high school exit exam? Done.

Davis and the California legislature are putting on a clinic for the D.C. class, which can’t agree on the time of day. Says Californian Leon Panetta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff: “The public right now looks at Congress and sees a lot of meanness and partisanship and people behaving more like it’s West Side Story than government by and for the people. So if a Governor comes along who looks as if he’s trying to walk down the middle and get things done, that’s something they could grow very comfortable with.”

Davis’ staff members develop tics when you suggest their boss is Clinton, the triangulator, but without the action pants. They’d rather throw Tony Blair’s name on the table for the way Blair moved England’s Labour Party to the center. Even the Wall Street Journal made that comparison last month, holding its nose and flattering the Democratic Governor in the reluctant, quivering tone one might use to proclaim that proctological exams, while unpleasant, can be a good thing.

“You can work with him, oh, absolutely,” says Republican state senator Jim Brulte. “On fiscal issues, he’s closer to us than to the Democrats.” And considering that Democrats now monopolize state government, it could have been worse, says assembly minority leader Scott Baugh. “He has tempered the insatiable appetite of the liberals.”

Well, not quite. California wouldn’t be California without someone like state senator Tom Hayden, the aging radical, pointing out that Silicon Valley zillionaires make in 15 minutes on the stock market what they pay their housekeepers in a year. The problem with Democrats moving to the center, says Hayden, is that the equity issue is off the radar screen.

“I never said I would solve every problem that existed when I walked in the door,” Davis responds, but his plan for have-nots is to figure out how to build better schools and keep the economy growing, and he says no two issues will get more of his attention in the coming months.

Very nice, but that’s more of a slogan than a vision, say killjoy Republicans like Brulte and Baugh. And even jealous Democrats suggest–anonymously–that Davis sees no further than to the bottom line of the latest poll that’s dropped under his nose. Once he tests the wind, “he’s great at splitting the difference and being in the middle for middle’s sake rather than because that’s where he wants to be,” says one Democrat.

If that is true, Proposition 187 might be Exhibit A. The intent of the voter-approved 1994 ballot measure was to deny state aid to illegal immigrants. Davis opposed it as lieutenant governor, and it was declared largely unconstitutional by federal courts. But its backers appealed, and this spring, Davis kept 187 alive by asking a federal court to send it to a mediator. “The obvious interpretation,” Pete Wilson, head cheerleader for 187, told the Los Angeles Times, “is that he is trying to have it both ways.”

Davis called his maneuvering the best chance “for everyone to come out a winner.” There are, of course, no true winners in politics, which is the art of stealing more on Tuesday than you gave up on Monday. But Davis, who spent 26 years studying all the angles in local and state government, emerges on 187 and other issues as master of the three-wall bank shot. In August, the mediator basically junked 187, saying federal law already addressed the issues. Davis had effectively deflated the most divisive issue in recent state history.

Last week Davis again found a way out of a complicated political corner: he kept his pro-police record intact by vetoing a bill intended to discourage racial profiling in traffic stops. Davis said there was no need for state intervention because 30 law-enforcement agencies were already doing what the bill proposed. But he also ordered the California highway patrol to do the same.

And his health-care-reform bill, the result of several months of haggling with consumer advocates, health-care-industry lobbyists, legislators and policy people, left all parties pleased about some things, disappointed about others, but thrilled to have got the thing out the door. He and the legislative leaders managed, for instance, to craft language that would deter frivolous lawsuits–they would be allowed to go forward only when a patient could show he had suffered significant harm or significant financial loss–while holding health plans legally accountable for improper decisions. “Some elements we think are inappropriate or were taken to an extreme,” says Walter Zelman, president of a trade group that represents nearly all the state’s HMOs. “But there’s no question the Governor sought to find a middle ground…and for the most part he did.”

So who is this guy?

He is pro-choice and pro-death penalty. Pro-environment and pro-business. He’s the only Democrat in his family and in his wife’s too, and his mother Doris Morrel says she still doesn’t know what went wrong with Gray. At least he hasn’t been a spendthrift, she says proudly, since the day she scolded him for calling collect from Vietnam–Davis was a Bronze Star-decorated Army captain–before the rates went down at 5 o’clock. He is the Governor of Haight-Ashbury and Huntington Beach, which might as well be Jupiter and Mars. And if you don’t play the middle in California, you can spend your days on nothing but hemp legislation or rolling back whatever barriers prevent oil drilling in Yosemite.

Some may have thought that Davis, as former chief of staff to Governor Jerry Brown, would have converted the entire state to windmill power by now. But when Jerry was out walking the wing, Davis’ job was to grab hold of the rudder. And so today, if the fact that Davis is eating a Balance bar while he pores over bills doesn’t frame the picture for you, he suggests looking at his January state of the state address, which reads: “I don’t really care which side of the aisle a good idea comes from as long as it will work.”

He seems to feel roughly the same way about money, and has already squirreled away $7 million in campaign contributions despite the fact that his next election is more than three years away. Huge chunks have come from law enforcement and California Indian tribes, each of whom would appear to have got nice air kisses in return. But Garry South, Davis’ senior political adviser, says there’s a long list of contributors who aren’t very happy, beginning with the state teachers’ union. The Governor’s education-reform package offers a carrot–cash bonuses for teachers and schools that pump up test scores. But there’s also a stick–negative teacher evaluations will be sent to local school boards.

“Campaign-finance reform has a nice and legitimate ring to it,” says Davis, whose two primary opponents last year put up $60 million together, almost all of it their own, against his $10 million. “But it is also an invitation to every Silicon Valley billionaire to spend his own money” to get elected in an effort to bury “people who have devoted most of their lives to public service.”

In Davis’ case, that service began in 1967, when, with a history degree from Stanford and a law degree from Columbia, he pulled his ROTC duty. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he saw America for the first time, and it changed him. “I was really offended by the notion that this war was being fought largely by minorities and Southern whites,” he said. Three years later, the whitest man in America was finance director for the mayoral campaign of a black man–Tom Bradley of Los Angeles. His next job was chief of staff for Jerry Brown, and Davis says he knew then that he wanted to be Governor. His mother traces the ambition back a little further, saying that at 11, Davis wrote a proclamation honoring his parents’ anniversary and signed it Governor Joseph Graham Davis Jr.

“My office was 25 ft. from the Governor’s office,” Davis says of his chief of staff job in 1974. “It took me about a foot a year to get where I was going.” Along the way, he had to develop some armor. He was seen by many as one of those hack career candidates, always angling for something, and few people saw a future for a guy who appeared to have taken the same personality course as Walter Mondale. “You had to be there as a friend to see how bad it was for him with all the ridicule [about his ambition],” says Lynn Schenck, a former Congresswoman who worked in the Brown administration with Davis and is now his chief of staff. “But I think it turned out to be a positive factor.”

It was like spinach, and it turned a pencil-neck into a Popeye. Davis rolled to a 58%-to-38% victory last year and, while he can’t be more than 140 lbs., he took the landslide as a mandate and has been throwing his weight around ever since. When actor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently told Talk magazine he could be interested in running for Governor in three years, Davis’ communications director, Phil Trounstine, said, “That’s fine. The Governor is thinking about starring in Terminator 3.”

“People told me I never had what it takes,” Davis said at a bill-signing stop in Silicon Valley, speaking with such emotion that it was clear his naysayers are not done paying for their sins. “They said I was used up, old news, roadkill. And you can do one of two things when you meet resistance … You either accept the verdict, or you fight back.” He ought to start using his given name, Davis’ mother says. Her boy ain’t so gray, as it turns out.

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