The Unhappy Warrior 

Gray Davis: The rise of America’s most calculating politician

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

IT'S LABOR DAY, 1998, AND GRAY DAVIS IS AT Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Padres, to throw out the first pitch of the game. It seemed like a tailor-made campaign stop. After all, he was the captain and shortstop on his high school baseball team, and had been flying high on the campaign trail, drawing roaring crowds of enthusiastic supporters. But he is nervous, worried about what might go wrong. For the third time, he leans over to me, a journalist, and says, "Please be sure to remind me to have the announcer introduce me as 'lieutenant governor of California and Bronze Star winner.'" He figures if the crowd hears he won a Bronze Star, which he did in the Vietnam War, he's less likely to be booed.

We make our way onto the field, and the future governor warms up with the Padres, a team owned by his friend John Moores, who's donated $100,000 to the Davis campaign.

Finally, wearing a blue Padres cap and windbreaker, Davis stalks to the mound. He's introduced just as he wishes, his military-veteran status and home-team garb inoculating him against any boos. Come the wind-up, Davis fires a perfect strike across home plate, to loud cheers. He smiles for the first time in 10 minutes.

Related Stories

  • How to Vote 8

    You know the incumbents. So our June 3 voter guide is about the other stuff - like a comedic race for judge featuring candidates so bad the bar association finds both "Not Qualified." One is Charles Calderon, who L.A. Weekly previously reported as one of the worst legislators in California. There's...
  • Marry, People 3

    After the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage to resume in California last summer, people started getting their vows on pretty much right away. See also: Gay Marriage in California: What Happens Next? But California law still contained antiquated language that defined marriage as "a personal relation arising out of...
  • Proposition 42 Wins: Who Pays for Government Transparency?

    It looks like the state of California may soon no longer be required to foot the bill for the costs of local governments' complying with the California Public Records Act and open meetings laws. Proposition 42, which requires local governments to follow the Public Records Act and the Brown Act,...
  • Cali Lives Strong

    Californians spend more in federal taxes than they receive back in services. And the same can be said for healthcare. According to an analysis by personal finance site WalletHub, California barely makes the top 20 (number 19) among states when it comes to "return on investment" (ROI) for healthcare costs...
  • We Wish We All Could Be Caprice's Kind of California Girl

    “This is myself with my best friend at the time, frying my skin," says the across-the-pond celebrity Caprice Bourret while looking at old photos, nibbling a scone at high tea at the Culver Hotel. "I used to be such a California girl. I used to fry. Hawaiian Tropic, no sunscreen at all."...

Four years later, Davis once again ends up at Qualcomm Stadium after a long day of campaigning, at a union-organized tailgate party. This time the crowds around the state have been smaller and less passionate. Will he again throw the first pitch? "I'm going to rest on my laurels and not press my luck." He didn't want to chance it, knowing that this time he might have been booed, Bronze Star and all.

Davis has many reasons to be cautious. He has never really been the popular choice. He wasn't the choice of the cognoscenti for governor in 1998; he wasn't even the first choice to be then-Governor Jerry Brown's chief of staff in 1975, the job that made his entire career possible. To make it to the top, Davis has had to work hard. He rarely took bold steps, preferring small, measured ones instead.

This is the way of Gray. A man so disciplined that he set out on a course to the governorship a quarter-century ago and, year in, year out, did all he could to achieve it.

In 1985, when Gary Hart was the Democratic front-runner for president, Davis had a 45-minute private meeting with the then-senator, peppering him with questions about the then-campaign and the 1972 primary victories of George McGovern, whose campaign Hart had managed. Afterward, Hart said, with a kind of awe, "I have just met with the most calculating politician in America."

Disciplined, cautious and remote, always remote, so much so that his top adviser has not been to his home in Los Angeles since 1998. I had been acquainted with him for nearly 20 years when, one day while I was speaking to one of his advisers on a speaker phone, he popped into the aide's office and said hello, then mentioned that his brother was there too, visiting from Japan. Brother? Japan? Later, when asked what Davis' brother is up to now, gubernatorial press secretary Steve Maviglio said: "I didn't know he had a brother."

Gray Davis is, to all but a few, an enigma. An important ally says: "You can spend two hours having dinner with him and walk away wondering who he is and what he believes."

The aloof Davis acts like someone who wants to be loved, but who is afraid to try because he doesn't think he can be. So, in classically American materialist fashion, he substitutes what to him is the next best thing: money. Not money for himself, for he owns very little other than a condo in West Hollywood and Israel savings bonds. No, it's money for his political committee, a chimera of identity which some think is more important to him than his own personality. Given the central role that money has played -- both in winning the office and in holding on to it this year -- it is perhaps not surprising that he confided in 1998 that if he lost the election, he would become a merchant banker, eschewing the more customary law-firm route for out-of-office politicians with law degrees.

In fact, the most interesting thing he does is raise money, and lots of it, sometimes in questionable ways. His widely noted money-raising mania has made him California's all-time champion, with his re-election campaign closing in on an astonishing $70 million. His obsession with money raises serious questions about the integrity of his "pay-to-play" administration, where few are heard in Gray Davis' Capitol without anteing up.

Related Content

Now Trending

  • Foster the People's Downtown L.A. Mural Is Coming Down

    The controversial Foster the People mural downtown is coming down, the office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced today. Despite claims by the pop band that it had necessary permits and that the artwork was legitimately produced, the mayor's office states what we reported previously: The piece is on a...
  • Sexual Predator Is Targeting Females in Eastside Park

    A sexual predator is on the loose in an Eastside park, police warned today. Cops say the creep has targeted "lone females" walking in Ernest E. Debs Regional Park three times between January and July. He has groped, exposed himself and even attacked with a knife, the Los Angeles Police...
  • U.S. Reps Call For Federal Intervention in Dodger TV Blackout

    A group of local U.S. representatives wants the Federal Communications Commission to help end Time Warner Cable's blackout of Dodger games for competing cable and satellite providers. Negotiations to bring the team's games to AT&T U-verse, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, DirecTV, Dish Network, Mediacom, Suddenlink Communications and Verizon FIOS have gotten...
Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • Street League Skateboarding Super Crown World Championship
    On Sunday, Street League Skateboarding touched down in the Galen Center at USC as part of a four-stop tour for SLS's Super Crown World Championship. The L.A. stop determined the roster for Super Crown, airing August 24th on FOX Sports 1. The final eight are Nyjah Huston, Luan Oliveira, Torey Pudwill, Shane O'Neill, Paul Rodriguez, Chaz Ortiz, Matt Berger and Ishod Wair. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Comic-Con's "Celebrity" Autograph Area
    A sometimes overlooked (but still incredibly unique) aspect of San Diego Comic-Con are the celebs available to sign autographs, as well as the autograph seekers themselves. If you've ever wanted to meet the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld or the guy who played Michelangelo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, chances are, as you wander the Autograph Area, you'll be able to connect with someone you didn't even realize you were waiting your whole life to meet! All photos by Rob Inderrieden.
  • Real Madrid Soccer Practice at UCLA
    Fans came out to greet world champion soccer team Real Madrid as they practice at UCLA. This is the first time that soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has practiced with the team this year. All photos by Jeff Cowan.