Governor tests the boundaries of fundraising zeal

BY almost any measure, California Gov. Gray Davis is one of the most avid and successful fundraisers in American political history.

His $1-million-a-month consistency has made him a prototype for these political times – a state politician cut in the mold of Presidents Clinton and Bush, who understands the centrality of campaign cash in a world of ever-more-costly elections.

Yet recently, his story has also become a cautionary tale to office seekers nationwide, as his all-out fundraising efforts draw growing ethical scrutiny and public ire. One in a string of examples: The state prison guards' union donated $251,000 to Mr. Davis in March, weeks after he gave them a 34 percent pay raise and chose to shut down five private prisons, which had been hailed as successes but which the union opposed.

While he is hardly the first politician to be accused of currying favor for a fat check, the scope of his fundraising – setting a new standard for state elections – has made his example more poignant. He is in many ways a campaign-finance experiment in action, testing the limits of what voters will overlook and what will fire their outrage.

"Without meaning to, Davis may be discovering that there are boundaries to this," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles. "He's the Christopher Columbus of campaign finance."

Questions about cash

Of late, a series of contributions have begun to define where that line is.

• A member of the Davis administration accepted a $25,000 check from a lobbyist for software company Oracle several days after the state signed a $95 million contract with the company. Davis returned the check earlier this month, and the highly criticized deal is now considered so flawed that the state is trying to void it.

• A March visit to the University of California, Berkeley, to chat with Democratic students was accompanied by a pitch: Each student who wanted to attend was requested to pay $100.

• A plumbers' union this month gave $260,000 shortly after the Davis administration delayed a decision on whether to allow homes to have plastic piping, which is cheaper and easier to install than current copper piping. Only one other state has a similar ban on plastic pipes.

• In the middle of a policy discussion with the California Teachers Association in his office at the state Capitol in February, Davis abruptly asked for $1 million, according to the union president.

• Soon after hiring a former Davis official in 2000, the consulting company Accenture gave the governor $50,000. Later, Accenture won a $453 million contract to provide software to the state.

Few go so far as to suggest that Davis has done anything illegal, and the administration has repeatedly denied that donations have any effect on public policy.

But the drive for more campaign cash has come at a cost. The constant questions about the ethics of his fundraising – all front-page news in the Los Angeles Times or San Francisco Chronicle – have eroded many voters' opinion of him.

"The moral of the story is that there is a line that you can cross that will get you in trouble with the general population," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "No one's saying there's been an [illegal] quid pro quo, but the appearance is that you have to pay to play."

Distraught voters

In the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, where the Italian and French eateries of College Avenue border on Berkeley chic, the general mood is one of disgust. Statewide, Davis's approval rating is at 42 percent, and this trendy corner of Oakland seems no different.

Fundraising isn't the only issue – the state has a deficit this year of $24 billion, and the shadow of the energy crisis is always near. But, to many, it's significant.

"Fundraising is a major problem with American politics," says Armin Wright, his bright face bookended by bushy white muttonchops. "Davis just carries it out to a little more of an extreme."

Yet even Davis's critics acknowledge that there is a clear method to his fundraising quest. For one, California is, in essence, its own country: larger than Germany, more populous than Canada, and more diverse than any place on earth. Reaching all its people is a costly exercise.

Moreover, America is entering the age of the independently wealthy politician. In 1998, Al Checchi spent $40 million of his own money in a Democratic primary he lost to Davis. Davis's Republican challenger this year, Bill Simon, spent $5 million during the primary.

Not that Davis is complaining about drawing Mr. Simon for the November election. In fact, Davis's huge campaign war chest allowed him to virtually hand pick his opponent.

Political wisdom held that Davis's greatest challenger in the general election would be moderate Republican and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Simon's conservative views were seen as out of line with this left-leaning state.

Entering the GOP primary

So, in an unprecedented move, Democrat Davis ran $10 million in ads attacking Mr. Riordan during the GOP primary, turning the tide toward Simon and effectively ensuring Davis four more years as governor.

With a war chest for this year's race estimated to be near $35 million, Davis looks set to victory despite his low approval ratings.

"The fundraising has a negative side," notes Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "But it's also clear that the negative ads in the Republican campaign will win him the election."

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