California's brightest star is, well, gray

Golf is one of California Gov. Gray Davis's few passions outside of politics.

And what he likes most, he says, is "seeing someone come up with their best game right when it's most important," like the back nine of a championship final round.

It's a good analogy for what Davis himself has done during the past 18 months. From near oblivion, he pulled off one of the most remarkable and sizable election victories in state history, restoring Democratic rule to the nation's largest state for the first time since the days of Gov. Jerry Brown.

More broadly, in both his election and his early days in office, Governor Davis, like few other politicians nationally, seems to have found the sweet spot of contemporary American politics: being tight-fisted with money, tough on crime, and family-friendly on social issues.

And personality? Davis jokes about his own lack of charisma, and keeps his private life just that. Perhaps, say analysts, Davis's embrace by the California electorate is a sign the public has had its fill of politicians' private lives spilling into the public arena.

Whatever, "he fits the current public mood tongue-and-groove," says Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. "And he's certainly gaining stature nationally."

So much so, the man who political pundits as well as some of his own staff wrote off two years ago is now on those same pundits' short list of running mates for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.

But if Davis were to burst onto the national scene, something those closest to him insist he has no interest in doing, it would be the first times Davis burst onto anything.

"I'm moderate by nature, raised by parents that taught moderation," says a trim and animated Davis, whose tone, gestures, and general reserve bespeak the term.

Others call it dull and boring, though therein may lie one of the secrets to Davis's rising status and impressive popularity: What the political press and intelligentsia find lackluster, the public finds solid and trustworthy.

"In my 30 years in politics, this is the greatest and most astonishing disparity I've seen between the insider community and the average voter," says Garry South, Davis's chief political strategist.

Public approval

Indeed in polls, Davis receives one of the most positive job ratings - 62 percent - given any previous California governor, according to the Field Institute.

Even California's normally fractious Republicans have found something to agree on: Most, according to polls, like Davis.

Says prominent Republican state Sen. Jim Brulte, "If you have to have someone from the other team [as governor], it's good to have someone like him."

Ironically, the unhappiest campers here in the capital city are the liberal Democrats who rejoiced when their party regained the governor's office in 1998 from Republican Pete Wilson, but have since done nothing but quarrel with Davis.

Veteran liberals like Senate president John Burton have consistently sniped at Davis from the left. In addition, the governor is currently in a highly public feud with the powerful California Teachers Association, which wants a faster boost in public education spending than the cautious Davis will allow.

It all stems, says Mr. South, from the left's misunderstanding of why Davis won a more than 20 point landslide victory.

Liberals saw it as a repudiation of the Republican years. But South, who is also Al Gore's chief California strategist, says the message from voters was actually that Davis represented continuity with the center-right years of Pete Wilson, as opposed to the lurch right that Davis's 1998 Republican opponent advocated.

If that sounds like a heretical analysis of a Democratic victory, it's not the first time Davis's party affinity has been questioned.

As a youngster, Davis's Republican parents sent him to a military school and as a student at Stanford University, Davis joined the ROTC. Time in Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star, showed him a side of American society he hadn't seen before. Subtle, institutional discrimination was evident in the preponderance of blacks and underprivileged whites fighting the war. It was eye-opening enough to whet Davis's appetite for politics.

"I came back convinced I was going to do something about it," says Davis.

But a Stanford classmate and longtime acquaintance says when he heard of Davis's entry into politics, he was surprised it wasn't as a Republican.

Still Davis's accomplishments in his first year include a number of things no one could have expected out of his Republican predecessor.

Davis has given California the toughest gun laws in the United States, strengthened patients' rights with HMOs, and helped protect ancient Redwoods in northern California.

Most significantly, Davis has focused like a drill bit on education, the issue he calls the first, second, and third priority.

Last year, he pushed through legislation requiring high school students to pass exit exams, creating a peer-review system for teachers, and establishing a plan to publicly rank schools by performance, which will result in rewards for the top achievers and punishment for bottom-scrapers.

Whether Davis's interest in education is personal or poll-driven, most believe it is his preoccupation as governor. He himself has said he won't run for reelection unless student achievement improves.

In recent days, Davis has proposed a $5 billion transportation program to ease the state's escalating transit problems.

Yet with both education and transportation, Davis is doing nothing even his supporters would call visionary. It's not his style, nor is it what he promised when he ran for governor.

But those who have known Davis for years warn against mistaking his moderate, incremental approach to policy as a sign of any uncertainty.

"Gray Davis is governor because he is one of the most disciplined, driven, and committed people I've ever seen," says Barbara Metzger, who worked with Davis when he was chief of staff for Governor Brown in the 1970s.

Back from oblivion

In the fall of 1997, it looked like Davis's two decades in politics, painstakingly spent climbing one rung at a time, would get trumped by dollars. Airline tycoon Al Checchi and US Rep. Jane Harman each jumped into the race to be the Democratic nominee and spent some $60 million, making it the costliest primary in American history.

Davis's staff emptied out, the press wrote him off, and even Davis admits things looked grim.

But in the end, voters turned their back on outsider Checchi and relative unknown Harman for the tried-and-true Davis. In the general election, Davis swept to a stunning victory.

Through it all, it was the cool and cautious Davis that resisted getting into the high-priced war too soon, partly because he couldn't afford to.

Yet it was a searing experience, say those involved in the campaign. And it motivated Davis to raise over $13 million last year, an astonishing figure given he doesn't face reelection until 2002.

With personal wealth playing an ever-greater role in this state's politics, Davis is doing what he's done for 23 years: methodically preparing himself for whatever may come next.*Received his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and his law degree from Columbia Law School.

*Earned a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam.

*Ran for US Senate in 1992, losing to Dianne Feinstein - the eventual winner - in the Democratic primary.

*Served as Gov. Jerry Brown's chief of staff, from 1975 to 1981. A year later, he was elected to the California Assembly. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1994 and governor in 1998.

*Only the fourth Democratic governor in California this century.

*Raised $13 million in 1999, even though he doesn't face reelection until 2002.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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