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
Davis, South and pollster Paul Maslin met with key financial backers, who were urging the campaign to spend Davis' painstakingly raised campaign funds to stave off the onslaughts of candidates worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Davis knew that this, the most important campaign of his life, was no time to panic. He, South and Maslin told the backers to cool it, keep the money coming, and good things would happen. Davis knew what he was doing. Like an overeager fighter, Checchi punched himself into exhaustion, attacking Harman, attacking Davis, promoting himself. After months of seeing his endless rain of ads -- he spent more than $40 million in the primary -- voters tuned him out. Harman, who spent more than $16 million, had little relevant experience, few ideas and never established a rationale for her candidacy. Davis spent his hard-earned $9 million effectively, driving home a fast-closing message that emphasized his years of familiarity with Californians along with a message of service, in the public arena and in Vietnam. It turned into a landslide, with Davis winning more votes than both his rivals combined.
DAVIS IS ONE OF THOSE POLITICIANS WHO MOSTLY sees people as the instruments to help him achieve his goals. It's how he sees his staff, contributors and other politicians.
"Gray doesn't really have friends," says one Davis associate. "He has supporters. His friends are his contributors."
And though he has mellowed somewhat as governor, Davis has been legendarily hard on his staff. During his run for the Assemby, he called his campaign manager, Stephen Rivers -- a former top aide to Cesar Chavez and Tom Hayden, now a publicist for a variety of Hollywood stars including Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone -- at all hours of the night, even after his election was assured. It was a practice that would annoy future generations of Davis staffers.
Once as he was being chauffeured to an appointment, he threw a cell phone at an aide in a fit of anger. A long list of Democratic operatives and staffers has quit. They form a sort of Gray Davis Alumni Association, sharing jokes about his remoteness and mimicking his deadpan, sometimes nasal-toned speech, though most are not publicly talking this close to the election.
Compared to its early days, the Davis team today is quite stable. Chief of staff Lynn Schenk and cabinet secretary Susan Kennedy run the Governor's Office, Ă¤ and the "Gang of Four," longtime chief strategist Garry South, media consultants David Doak and Tom O'Donnell, and pollster Paul Maslin, masterminds with Davis his second run for governor.
Stability is not without its challenges. In the Davis suite at the Biltmore on election night in 1998, staffers gleefully swapped a specially made T-shirt -- gray in color, naturally -- featuring an ant. It was a takeoff on a Davis remark to staff about some of their views being as significant as an ant's.
Treating people poorly sometimes carries a price. After Davis won the 1998 primary, South took a rare vacation. He nearly died in his native Montana from a sudden bleeding-ulcer attack. Rushed 70 miles along winding mountain roads to a hospital in his hometown of Miles City, South spent days recuperating. Davis called many times, trying to talk with him. But South's wife refused to let the gubernatorial nominee speak to his campaign manager.
Not surprisingly, Davis' one unwavering supporter is his wife, Sharon. Gray met Sharon Ryer, a flight attendant on Pacific Southwest Airlines, when he was chief of staff for then-Governor Jerry Brown. They'd encountered each other on the Sacramento-L.A. circuit, but it really sparked one night when Davis boarded the plane and had to hold the flight for Brown, who was running late. After they finally got in the air, Sharon, already primed to be miffed, took offense at Davis' manner and informed him that he was a very difficult passenger. Not unlike many men, Davis enjoyed being insulted by a woman he found attractive, and he apologized and later asked her out. Somewhat to her surprise, she said yes. But it's perhaps not that surprising, since her view is generally sunny, especially compared to what most view as her wintry husband, whom she describes as "not aloof, [but] stoic."
They were married in 1983 by Gray's close friend, Rose Bird, who conducted the ceremony in her capacity as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Bird and Jerry Brown met during their days at the University of California Berkeley, and she and Davis quickly became friends when she joined the cabinet. For decades, Davis' support of the death penalty has been the cornerstone of his public image as a tough-on-crime governor.
He took no public position in 1986, when voters recalled Bird for her opposition to the death penalty. But some associates of that era say he had mixed feelings, and was much more ambivalent. He wondered, for example, if the reality of executions might turn Californians against the death penalty. Today, Davis insists he never had any misgivings about the death penalty. "I have always been for it," he said in a discussion on his campaign jet in August. "I loved Rose as a human being," Davis said, "but I never supported her views on the death penalty. She was wrong on the death penalty, overturning virtually every capital case that came before her."