A Democrat Despite Himself

It is instructive that no wing of the Democratic Party claims Governor Gray Davis as its own. Though he is a fiscal conservative and attempts to govern from the center, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council -- a group that hails every remotely friendly sewer commissioner as a path-breaking New Democrat -- gives Davis a wide berth. Though Davis delivers for unions when he feels compelled to, I know no labor leaders or union activists who really think of Davis as a union Democrat. Left to his own devices, Davis doesn‘t really fall anywhere on the political spectrum. He is elsewhere.

That’s because Davis really isn‘t interested in the ends of politics nearly as much as the means. As governor, he has to take positions, sign or veto bills and, ultimately, affect the lives of 35 million people. But he does not live for this -- either to shift the state in a particular direction or to tinker with legislative details or manage an immense bureaucracy. He is consumed, as no other pol in my experience has been consumed, by the mechanics of getting in power and staying in power.

All pols must consume something of themselves in that quest, and some of them have been infinitely more adept at it than Gray. As Robert Caro has shown us, Lyndon Johnson amassed power with a brilliance that Davis can only dream of. But Johnson also knew you amassed power to spend it, and that spending it could get you more power if you spent it wisely. And Johnson enjoyed the spending -- using his clout to enact the great civil-rights bills, for instance -- as much as the getting.

Davis enjoys none of that. He’s not a governor for legislative give-and-take, for grand compromises going back and forth between the players. All he wants to do is amass power -- less abstractly, to fund-raise. That is what animates him, that and the management of his own election campaigns. For Davis, the means have become the end. Politics is about raising money and spending it well. It‘s not at all clear that he actually likes those chores, but it’s very clear that he derives no joy from all the other aspects of politics, which are usually what bring people into politics in the first place. He is the Unhappy Warrior, and it shows.

This makes policy choices a particularly fearful undertaking for Gray, since he cares little for the outcome save as it affects his ability to raise more money or maintain popular support. He dithered endlessly during the energy crisis because he had to choose; he ran the risk of offending major contributors such as utility and energy companies. Indeed, in almost every political choice our governor makes, you can all but see the dollars-and-cents calculations whirring in his head, as in a Scrooge MacDuck dialogue balloon. Davis, for instance, is much more likely to sign a bill backed by a union (that is, an entity that can write him a check) than one that will benefit the unorganized working class (which writes no checks whatever). Not until the major unions made it their priority to raise workers‘ comp payments, for instance, was Davis at all interested.

For Davis, moreover, all policy choices entail a risk that he will alienate some potential supporters. The larger consequences of these decisions may not really matter all that much. Endeavoring in recent days to assure Latino crowds that he will next year sign some version of legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, he said he looked forward to the day when ”we‘ll get this behind us.“ A remarkably self-absorbed way to look at major civil rights legislation, that.

Gray is a pay-to-play governor, which, given our system of campaign finance, is all perfectly legal. And since he is little else but that, Californians have come to dislike him rather intensely. Both ethically and characterologically, he is a miserable human being -- unhappy in his work, and depressing those who hope for something better in a governor than a calculating cash register.

And yet, Gray Davis has presided over the ongoing transformation of California into just about the most equitable and humane state in the nation. Taken together, the bills he has signed into law, particularly in this year’s session, have begun to make California a progressive island on the land. The only U.S. state big enough to be a real nation unto itself (boasting the world‘s sixth largest economy) is developing policies and standards of its own that run counter to, and even threaten, those of George W. Bush’s Washington.

At a time when the national government is busily attacking the environment, the security of working people, and the regulations designed to keep corporations from completely ruling the world, California is moving in a different direction. In the past year, California has become the first state to provide paid family leave for workers -- long a staple in Europe, but never before enacted in the U.S. It has provided binding arbitration for farm workers, who had been unable to get contracts out of roughly two out of every three employers with whom workers had authorized them to bargain. It has enacted fuel-efficiency standards far stricter than those of the federal government, with a market in cars so large Detroit has to comply. It has required its utilities to provide 20 percent of the state‘s energy from renewable sources by the middle of the next decade -- a profound shift in the ways Americans collect and consume energy. It has provided its own funding for stem-cell research, even as the fundamentalist forces in D.C. have blocked any serious chance for pursuing the scientific and medical advances that derive from such research. It has enabled Californians to sue gun manufacturers for gunshot injuries and death, while Washington has cowered beneath the NRA’s shadow of a gunman.

And there‘s more, from this and earlier years of Davis’ tenure. Worker comp rates have finally been raised from abysmally low standards. The eight-hour-day standard for overtime pay has been restored. Employers providing health insurance under municipal living-wage ordinances have been allowed to form insurance-buyer pools. State contracts cannot go to companies engaged in anti-union activities among its workers. Major bond measures funding long overdue school construction and parks acquisitions have been enacted by state voters, measures that won the governor‘s blessing before going on the ballot.

All in all, quite a record. Davis signed many of these measures with the greatest reluctance, some he signed only after vetoing previous iterations, some he signed kicking and screaming, some he signed willingly. But sign them he has. So what gives?

What is driving Davis to decency, and better than decency, is the state itself. Politically, the huge immigrant influx, the labor-Latino alliance to which it has given rise and which in turn has steered it in progressive directions, the steadily advancing social liberalism of the state’s voters, the steadily advancing economic liberalism of the state‘s Latino voters, and the organization of all this energy by a new-model labor movement and by longstanding environmental groups, have made California the leftmost state in the nation. As John Judis and Ruy Teixeira demonstrate in their important new book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, independents in California actually stand to the left of Democrats when polled on many social issues.

Crucially, these changes have been reflected, and advanced, by the state Democratic Party. Term limits have brought new legislators to Sacramento, some of whom espouse these progressive positions, some of whom owe their election to unions and enviros who promote these positions. Key legislative leadership -- above all, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton -- have steered the above-listed bills through the legislature and presented them to a frequently unhappy governor. Often as not, though, the pressure on Davis to sign these bills has been such that he couldn’t refuse.

He‘s tried. Breaking with his newfound funders in agribusiness to side with the farm workers went against his every instinct to hew to the center and keep the money coming in. Very frequently, his fears overwhelm him. Despite his commitment to sign legislation enabling undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, he flinched at the thought this might cost him some voters concerned with post-911 security issues. The damage to the Democratic base here -- to Latino citizens with family and friends who must continue to live in the shadows -- is real and significant. But this was a cause with little institutional heft behind it: Undocumenteds could hardly write Davis a check. On this bill, the governor‘s was the kind of calculation that makes him so distinctly loathsome a character.

And this is far from the only truly loathsome political calculation that’s characterized Davis‘ tenure. His record of overturning all parole and commutation recommendations from the board members charged with overseeing the cases, out of a need to look tougher on crime than Daryl Gates, has resulted in a number of travesties of justice.

But this doesn’t gainsay that Davis has presided over major advances in social policy in the U.S., at a time where social policy is being ratcheted backward in Washington and many state capitols. And thus, with noses held firmly and high, the Weekly is endorsing Davis for another term as governor.

What of the alternative courses of action? Bill Simon is a not-ready-for-prime-time overage preppy with an abysmal performance record in his previous jobs, who adheres to the positions of the Neanderthal wing of the GOP: anti-choice, anti--gun control, against the farm-worker bill, against the fuel-efficiency standards. If Mississippi‘s in the market for an incompetent governor, it could do worse than Simon.

There is, of course, a Green candidate for governor, too, but what’s going on in California today illustrates precisely what‘s myopic and misguided about the Greens. In fact, this is a state where the political difference between the two main parties, far from being nonexistent, is huge. The state Republicans, who nominated Simon over Richard Riordan, are the kind of laissez-faire, intolerant, socially reactionary force that reflects the values of Dick Cheney and Tom DeLay. The state Democrats are contested terrain. They have a business, New Democrat wing and a labor-environmentalist-feminist wing, and the two often clash. In the March primaries, these two wings duked it out in a number of open Assembly seats, with the progressive forces winning the lion’s share of the contests. In short, prodded by an energized labor-liberal coalition, the Democrats are moving leftward, and increasingly resemble a genuinely progressive party.

So what about Gray? How do we assess him? On this, I want to defer to my sweet and brilliant friend Jim Chapin, the historian and commentator who died suddenly on the last day of September. Chapin was a master analogist, and during the 2000 campaign, he asked, ”What if you gauged the two sides in the Civil War just by looking at the generals in command at Antietam? McClellan was more pro-slavery than Lee. If that‘s all you focused on -- not the armies, not the governments, not the states and their politics -- you might conclude there was no difference between the North and the South.“

Chapin’s point was that parties matter, that then-candidate Al Gore, whatever his flaws, was responsive to a different set of forces than George W. Bush, and that elections are about a choice of parties and social forces at least as much as they are about a choice of men and women. At this moment, we plainly choose the Democrats. They are not inherently a progressive party, but at the moment, the powerful progressive forces in California are successfully shaping much that the Democrats do; the constituents and the party are both on a roll. We are for them; they‘ve got their act together, and they -- and the state -- need a Democratic governor who will ratify what they do.

Is Gray Davis the best the Democrats can do? Of course not. Pretty much any Democratic governor of California in the year 2002 would have signed the bills he signed. There are progressive Democrats who could be governor -- State Treasurer Phil Angelides, for one -- who have demonstrated far more leadership than Gray on these matters, on the energy crisis, on the fiscal crisis of the state. But for four more years, Davis is the vehicle through which the party must act.

Early in his tenure in office, Davis famously said that the role of the Legislature was to implement his vision. Happily, it didn’t turn out that way. Davis didn‘t really have a vision of his own save enlarging his campaign treasury. The Legislature -- prodded by workers and clean-air activists, enviros and social-justice advocates, as well as by the usual business suspects -- did have a vision, and it wasn’t half bad.

So, the L.A. Weekly backs Gray Davis for governor, because much of the time, he‘s compelled to implement John Burton’s vision.