By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Call it the Gray Davis technique. It has enabled him to shoot down his most dangerous Republican rival, former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, and move out to a double-digit lead in a new Field Poll over Republican nominee Bill Simon Jr. All the while, of course, without Davis overcoming his own negatives with voters.
On the one hand, his technique has a great deal to do with his cool, controlled manner, seemingly calculating every move for political advantage. But there is another shade of gray, first lady Sharon Davis, who is sent to campaign in places the governor would be relatively unwelcome. The Weekly spent two days on the road last month with Sharon Davis. But first, some telling scenes of the governor‘s technique in action.
Last week he spoke at a crime victims’ rally on the Capitol steps, where state prison-guards chief Don Novey lauded him. “Gray Davis is to the right of me on crime!” exclaimed the fedora-wearing power broker, whose union has pumped millions into the governor‘s law-and-order-boosting campaigns.
How is it possible for an unpopular governor to unite a hardliner like Novey and a left-winger like Jackson on successive days? Bill Simon still appears to have no idea of what he is up against, though his faltering fund-raising effort just received the boost of $4.5 million from events in Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley featuring President Bush. Simon had been claiming a sizable lead, in purported polls touted in a faux political newsletter actually sent out by his campaign consultant. The 43-29 Davis lead in a real poll, the Field Poll, is a further blow to Simon’s credibility, already reeling from a growing sense of his evasiveness setting in among the press, whom Simon dodged for four weeks after a bad news conference where he couldn‘t answer hard questions on abortion and energy deregulation. After foolishly reacting to Davis’ criticism of his refusal to release his tax returns -- now a customary practice for major candidates -- by telling a San Francisco radio interviewer that Davis sounded “like Karl Marx,” he was literally forced to again talk to the press. It hasn‘t gone well for him. It’s not that Davis is getting more popular; rather, Simon‘s ratings have gone down.
Still, Davis knows he has huge problems. After being lauded by crime victims and police officials, a persistent local TV reporter cornered him later in the day on the budget crisis, which is ballooning even further with weak tax receipts. “Look, you want a soundbite, right?” Davis finally said. He laughed twice, mirthlessly -- resembling a guy in one of those “Never let them see you sweat” commercials -- then looked off to the side for 20 seconds as he composed himself, finally explaining once again that things would be tough and required hard choices, and then escaped to another event.
The next day in Silicon Valley was more fun for Davis, a brilliant piece of political packaging in which he managed simultaneously to appeal to the left and the center. Jesse Jackson’s RainbowPUSH and the Davis administration jointly sponsored a business-development conference with many top Silicon Valley executives. It was a powerful and calculated moment. Davis, who is lagging in black support, gained the fervent embrace of the nation‘s best-known black leader. Jackson and his supporters gained direct access to top state officials (half of the Davis cabinet was on hand) for small-business contracts and the imprimatur of the governorship in dealing with the high-tech industry. Mostly white high-tech leaders, including Intel CEO Craig Burnett, who introduced Jackson, gained the good graces of a man who is well known for frequently causing big trouble for big corporations through demonstrations and boycotts.
The velvet glove to the Davis fist of realpolitik is 48-year-old Sharon Davis, a former flight attendant who piqued the interest of her future husband by informing him that he was “a very difficult passenger” during a flight in the early 1980s, when he was Jerry Brown’s chief of staff. The Weekly went with her to the conservative hinterlands of California.
Overall, Sharon Davis is more liberal and open than Gray. With school kids, she is warm and focused, engrossed in conversation with people too young to vote for her husband. She is also a shrewd political operator well versed in policy who can fire up the Democratic faithful, as she did at lunches and dinners in colorful rural settings. She also spent half an hour arguing with me about her husband‘s energy policies, and much more time discussing this pol and that pol. Her husband’s famous feud with the state‘s most powerful legislator, Senate President John Burton, a fiery San Francisco liberal, is not far from mind. “Why is he [Burton] so popular with reporters and activists?” she wonders. “He says such outrageous things.” Which is a very good reason why he is popular with reporters and activists. “He could never act like that if he were governor,” she points out. “He’d be too far out there. Gray is too responsible for that. But Johnnie Burton is entertaining if you don‘t let it get to you.”
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