By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When the young Columbia Law School graduate, bored with his corporate law job, broke into politics, first volunteering for then-Senator John Tunney and later working as the money man for Tom Bradley, he gave voice to liberal causes, though possibly more out of calculation than as a true believer. His 25 years in public office are filled with events and stories that show Davis can still do good deeds, even if his heart doesn't seem to be in it. But more often than not, Gray Davis' quarter-century of public life is the journey of a good soul tarnished and compromised by ambition and the pursuit of money.
THE VIETNAM WAR KEPT DAVIS FROM STARTING a career right out of law school. He had been in the ROTC during college, so upon graduating from Columbia in 1967, he went to Vietnam for eight months as an Army Signal Corps officer. He was not a combat officer, though his helicopter was fired on several times during his visits to units to check on communications equipment. He became convinced of the precariousness of life, and not only because of his war experience. Back home in Brentwood, his family's finances had worsened. His father, an advertising executive with Timemagazine, handled the family's books recklessly. Money, which once was plentiful in the Davis home, got so tight that his mother told him to call home only during the cheapest hours.
It is not surprising, then, that the hallmark of Davis' political career has been the never-ending search for the financial resources he needs to prevail.
Upon his return home, Davis joined a law firm, but he found corporate law stifling. Never a big idealist, Davis supported causes larger than his own self-interest. One such opportunity arose in Tom Bradley's L.A. mayoral campaign in 1973. Davis took a job as top aide to legendary liberal financier Max Palevsky, who was handling the money side of Bradley's campaign. "Gray was Max's 'bagman,'" says one old associate. "He drove around town picking up the checks. It looks like training for what he does now and, in retrospect, it was, but people forget what a cause Bradley's election was in those days."
Bradley, who had been savaged four years earlier by conservative Mayor Sam Yorty, would later be known as a cautious centrist given to brokering between moneyed interests -- not unlike Davis. But his 1973 rematch was a liberal crusade to oust Yorty, who in 1969 had used a race-baiting campaign, and elect the city's first African-American mayor. Says Davis, "I thought Bradley could make a difference for people who hadn't had much, and it was exciting to be part of it."
DAVIS SOON FIGURED HE WAS READY TO RUN FOR office himself. At 31, he launched an audacious campaign for state treasurer. His opponent: a legend making a comeback, former Assembly Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh. Unruh trounced Davis in the primary, and, perhaps validating Davis' view of the office, went on to establish the treasurer's post as one of the prime cockpits of California political finance.
Davis learned that it takes more to win an election than money. It's also about connections. On the campaign trail, he had repeatedly crossed paths with gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, who was impressed by Davis' intelligence and drive.
When Brown won in 1974, he had a problem. His top two aides, campaign manager Tom Quinn and pollster Richard Maullin, both wanted to be chief of staff. While the Brown family (represented in politics by Governor Pat, Governor Jerry and State Treasurer Kathleen) encouraged open debate, it disliked power struggles. Jerry Brown chose a compromise. Davis would become chief of staff and Quinn and Maullin would have fiefdoms of their own -- Quinn, the Air Resources Board; Maullin, the Energy Commission. Many thought that Davis would prove to be a toothless choice, and that one or the other of the two campaign supremos would ultimately emerge as Jerry Brown's consigliere. It never happened.
Gray Davis insinuated himself into Brown's political life, making himself indispensable until he resigned seven years later to run for office on his own. The buttoned-down chief of staff became the antidote to Brown, a free-flowing philosopher prince of a politician capable of stunning moments of focus and decisiveness but prone to letting matters float off into the ozone.
Virtually no one received an appointment to any post, however minor, in the Brown administration without getting at least a note or a call from Davis. The joke was that Davis implied to every Brown appointee that he, Gray Davis, was really the appointing authority.
As Brown's main public spokesman, Davis was involved in every aspect of the controversial governorship, from the 1975 farm labor struggle to the decision to promote energy conservation and renewable power and halt the spread of nuclear power plants. Indeed, it was in that context that I first met Davis, when he came to Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda's Campaign for Economic Democracy in 1980 to offer support for a Democratic-convention resolution to phase out nuclear power plants.
Davis admired farm-worker leader Cesar Chavez and had what one former Brown aide described as "a warm relationship" with him. "Gray was someone we could go to and count on," says United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. In 1998, Huerta returned the favor, showing up at Davis headquarters during the dark days of his primary campaign when most political experts wrote him off and thought he would be overwhelmed by super-rich rivals Al Checchi and Jane Harman. She spent more than a month organizing Latino support for Davis.