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

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.

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.

Yet even at the height of his power, there were augers of trouble. With his regal tone and coolness, Davis had begun to alienate himself from the Legislature. He once told The San Francisco Chronicle that the Legislature's "job is to implement my vision."

The Great Administrator

What's more, with his dislike for public appearances and his unwillingness to take strong stands on bills before they reached his desk, he never was able to give voters any deeper sense of who he was or what his convictions were. In a time when President Bush has cast himself as a life-size G.I. Joe, Davis had become the apotheosis of the bureaucrat, bent over his desk deep within the Capitol compound.

At first, that seemed fine. Like Governors Wilson and Deukmejian before him, Davis was cast as "a competent administrator," not flashy or fun, says Karen Kaufmann, an expert in California politics at the University of Maryland in College Park. "But many bad things happened under his watch."

When they did, the Great Administrator - neither well loved nor well known - had no goodwill to fall back on, either in Sacramento or around the state. Instead, he became a political target. If governors are given too much credit during the good times and too much blame during the bad times, then Davis's experience suggests that during the worst times, governors can be blamed for nearly everything.

After all, Davis wasn't governor when the ill-fated energy-deregulation scheme was devised and passed. Nor did he pilot the high-tech industry's collapse, which eviscerated the state budget as capital-gains tax revenue vanished. Yet even those sympathetic to his plight say not all the blame on Davis has been misplaced.

"This set of circumstances would have been difficult no matter who was the governor," says Tim Hodson, a political scientist at California State University in Sacramento. "What [Davis] should be held responsible for is the way he handled these issues."

How he handled the energy crisis has been widely criticized. The state's energy system, after all, had shown clear signs of meltdown by May 2000, when the first rolling blackouts hit the Bay Area. But by the time more-severe shortages occurred in August and again in December, the Davis administration had done little. When Davis confessed, "If I wanted to raise rates I could have solved this problem in 20 minutes," Californians for the first time faced a question that, many say, now fuels the recall: Did a desire for self-preservation influence Davis's policy?

The fact that Davis ultimately signed costly long-term power contracts that drove up rates anyway set a new tone. In 2001, Davis's approval rating dipped below 50 percent, and the news turned negative. His manic fundraising - which had gotten him into trouble as far back as 1986 - spawned a series of scandals that raised questions about whether the governor was up for sale.

To pollsters, the speed of Davis's fall cannot be separated from the depth the California downturn. A budget that had grown from roughly $70 billion to more than $100 billion on Davis's watch was now sinking in red ink. No matter that most of the big-ticket budget items passed during the boom years had bipartisan support, Davis took the brunt of the blame.

As ties with the Legislature have worsened and his approval rating has dropped to 22 percent, Davis has become an outsider in his own state. When Senate leaders crafted this year's budget compromise, "he was almost irrelevant," Jeffe says. "Prior to these crises, he had not been in very visible offices. They [relied] on campaigning and then disappearing into the ether."

The recall effort, ironically, has put Davis where he is perhaps most comfortable - in survival mode. And if Tuesday's speech was any indication he's not likely to fade into the ether quietly.

For Davis, a steady rise to governor

Birthplace: The Bronx, N.Y.

Wife: Sharon Ryer Davis.

Religion: Roman Catholic

Education: • Stanford University (BA in History, 1964)

• Columbia University Law School, (JD 1967)

Military service: US Army captain, 1967-1969.

Professional Experience: Law clerk, Beekman & Bogue, New York

Political Experience:
• Finance Director, Tom Bradley for Mayor of Los Angeles, 1972-1974.

• Chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown, 1974-1982

• Representative, California State Assembly, 1982-1986

• Controller, State of California, 1986-1994

• Lieutenant governor, State of California, 1995-1998

• Governor, State of California, 1998-present

Source: Project Vote Smart

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