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Davis's tenure is marked, above all, by caution

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 21, 2003


ON a series of searing August days in 2000, the political fortunes of California Gov. Gray Davis began one of the most severe and stunning reversals in modern American history.

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For more than a year, Governor Davis had been as golden as his state. Almost immediately after his inauguration, the first Democratic governor in 16 years took the job by the throat, signing sweeping education reforms, environmental protections, and gun-control laws. His approval rating reached 60 percent. His possibilities seemed as broad as the Pacific.

Then, the blackouts began in earnest. From the perspective of today's recall race, the summer of 2000 was the fulcrum of Davis's tenure, turning a bright political career into a punch line for failure.

The state's energy crisis and the budget woes that followed did not originate with Davis, but state residents looked to him to respond. Their disappointment began to raise broader questions about his leadership and public persona. Yet, even amid the flotsam of those debacles, a full appraisal of his five years in office reveals a nuanced record of achievements as well as stumbles. Threaded though each decision, though, is a sense of caution that has defined Davis since he first entered public service 29 years ago as Gov. Jerry Brown's spokesman, sometimes calling reporters back four times to correct punctuation in a quote.

"By and large, what Californians perceive about his administration are his stumbles," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "It goes back to his inability to communicate a unified message - there's not a perception of vision or leadership."

In recent days, Davis has tried to change that by both word and deed. At campaign stops, the governor has shown an unusual decisiveness. Where he once rarely used the bully pulpit of his office to shape legislation, now Davis seemingly can't find enough bills to back - from expanding gay rights to giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

On one level, it would seem an unfamiliar tack for a governor who had cemented himself in the California's political center - and avoided even the scent of risk. Seen another way, though, Davis's new activism speaks to what has always been his primary political instinct: survival.

'Governor' before his time

From the moment he entered politics, Davis's ambition was transparent. It earned him the nickname "Governor Davis" while he worked as Governor Brown's chief of staff. Later, as a state legislator in the 1980s, he was renowned for locking in on TV crews like a homing pigeon.

Now challenged with wooing Democrats to vote "no" on the recall, Davis has simply adopted the most logical tactic: turn left.

On Tuesday, he entered full battle mode, blistering the recall as a Republican coup in an address televised statewide. To many, it was classic Davis. "He does not relish policy," says Dr. Jeffe. "He relishes the fight to be able to make policy." It is a perception that has become an integral part of Davis's public image.

But a deeper look at his governorship - and the arc of his political career - shows a record with at least some purpose beyond election-day tactics.

Most often, that purpose has been education, which Davis has promoted with particular consistency and zeal. As state controller in the late 1980s and early '90s, he famously fought Gov. George Deukmejian's plan to cut funding to schools, and later challenged Gov. Pete Wilson's attempt to stop payments to an impoverished school district. As governor, Davis has been "more aggressive about education than any governor since" the 1960s, says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. The day after Davis took office, he convened a special legislative session to consider school reforms. Three months later, the Legislature passed versions of his bills.

And there is some evidence that his moves toward greater accountability are working. Data released last week show that students' test scores improved significantly this year, continuing a recent trend.

Throughout much of his first term, in fact, legislative successes could be traced back to ideals formed years before. During two terms as controller, Davis established environmental credentials by persuading corporations in fiscal disputes with California to settle by giving the state sensitive forests and wetlands. He became an outspoken supporters of abortion rights by manning barricades at abortion clinics.

In the governor's chair, Davis has signed into law one of the world's toughest bills on greenhouse-gas emissions and America's strongest package of abortion-rights legislation.