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
So Davis had a plan and a new team already in place to make a run for the State Controller's seat. He also had a highly ambitious opponent, John Garamendi, a onetime and future gubernatorial candidate and popular former majority leader of the state Senate. Despite trailing Garamendi in early polls, Davis won the Democratic primary going away, with his carefully honed fund-raising advantage -- and the extra help from Berman and Waxman -- proving to be decisive.
His reign as controller had one minor flap: his purported use of state staff and telephones to raise money for his political committee. The investigation never went anywhere in the legal system, but some former Davis aides believe he was fortunate. "Gray learned how to avoid getting in trouble while skirting the edge of disaster," says one now.
WHEN DAVIS HAS BEEN RECKLESS IN HIS PUBLIC life, it's usually a case of taking extraordinary risks in pushing for a higher office. Consider his run for the U.S. Senate seat against Dianne Feinstein in 1992. Alan Cranston had chosen not to run because of his involvement in the savings-and-loan scandals. The Senate seat Pete Wilson gave up after winning the governorship in 1990 had been filled by a Republican placeholder named John Seymour and was also available.
Davis had taken to hanging out at Berman and D'Agostino's BAD Campaigns offices at night. They cooked up a scheme to run Davis and then-Congressman Mel Levine, another close Berman-Waxman ally. It would be an ultimate political coup. Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino were funny, cynical operatives Ă¤ who were nonetheless mostly liberal in their views, and Davis enjoyed the camaraderie as much as the advice. It turned out to be a political disaster, wrecking the Berman/Waxman machine, ending Levine's career, and nearly ending Davis'.
What was to have been the Year of the Machine turned into the Year of the Woman. Barbara Boxer easily won Cranston's seat over Levine. Feinstein blew away Davis, whose misfiring campaign featured a TV ad that disastrously compared the former San Francisco mayor with convicted hotelier Leona Helmsley. Feminists and liberals were incensed. Davis spent much of the next year following his primary defeat apologizing to Democratic activists.
Soon after, Davis resolved to be part of the phenomenon of women seeking high public office. He faced down thenÂstate Democratic chairman (now State Treasurer) Phil Angelides for the right to be gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown's running mate in the 1994 election. It turned out that she underestimated the daunting challenge of running against an incumbent governor, even an unpopular one like Pete Wilson. She lost big, but Davis won, becoming the Democrats' top statewide constitutional officer as lieutenant governor.
Despite the loss, it was a cunning political calculation for Davis. If Kathleen Brown won, as a woman and a Brown she would be a prospect for a national Democratic ticket, and he could become governor. If she lost, he would have an office that sounds much more important to the voter than it actually is. This quite sophisticated view was reached by Davis, with his new top aide, Garry South. Cutting the tie to the late Berman/Waxman machine, Davis at last found a chief of staff who would not become part of the revolving-door alumni association. South is a glib, indefatigably colorful, highly aggressive and articulate fellow who functions as Gray Davis' id, saying and doing things the very controlled governor never would. It was a shrewd choice, someone very much unlike himself bringing qualities he does not seem to have, not unlike his wife, Sharon Davis, who is as vivacious as Davis is reticent. These odd-fellow companions play crucial roles in Davis' professional and personal lives, bringing needed qualities that otherwise seem missing.
As lieutenant governor, Davis pursued a cautious course, serving on and chairing some boards, working closely with organized labor, championing low tuition for public colleges, criticizing the form if not the substance of state budget deliberations. A capillaries, rather than jugular, strategy. It engendered no real hostility or great affection, but did keep his name very current. All the time, Davis moved behind the scenes, building a war chest for a 1998 Democratic primary run. He and South prepared for a general-election race against the conservative Republican they ended up facing: state Attorney General Dan Lungren.
First Davis had to win the primary. Most name Democrats wanted Senator Feinstein to run, though labor was mostly in Davis' corner. South and Davis believed that Feinstein would not run, that she was comfortable in the Senate where she was achieving seniority and did not relish hard-fought primary and general-election campaigns which would leave her dealing with difficult state issues in a capital city far from the salons of Georgetown. They also knew she was not looking forward to discussing her husband's business dealings with China, which was then very much in the news for its covert involvement in U.S. politics. They were right. Feinstein demurred. But Davis then found himself in the unprecedented position of running against not one, but two super-rich candidates, Northwest Airlines chairman Al Checchi and coastal L.A. Congresswoman Jane Harman. Davis' lead in the polls evaporated beneath barrages of advertising.