A Fading Gray

As we enter the election year, we have a major paradox. Although there are promising new developments on the energy front, Gray Davis is shockingly weak in popularity compared to other major elected officials since the terrorist attacks of September 11 -- he‘s among the few in the country who haven’t gone up in public estimation. Yet despite this weakness -- or perhaps because of it -- he is arrogating powers to himself that are unprecedented.

Gray Davis is seeking almost dictatorial authority in several areas -- trying to continue his energy state of emergency, improperly rewriting some legislation, notably on racial profiling, through ”edited“ vetoes, and overriding long-established parole procedures. He has blocked 64 of 65 releases of convicted murderers recommended by the parole board, though a court has just rebuffed him on this practice.

And Democratic legislative leaders have gone to court to stop what they see as Davis‘ meddling with their budget-writing powers.

Meanwhile, Davis is going to run into serious opposition on other fronts, not only from Republicans, but from Democrats, most notably Senate President John Burton, the fiery San Francisco liberal.

Senator Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) will lead the charge, as she did at the end of session last September, to revoke the governor’s emergency powers in the energy crisis. John Burton will help with that, of course, and with the other areas. Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and new Speaker Herb Wesson, who, like Bowen are from L.A., will join with Burton to contest Davis on his improper assumption of budget-writing powers and his new concept, the edited veto.

It should be quite interesting, and puts Davis in sharp perspective as the campaign begins.

Bowen got the Senate to pass her bill ending Davis‘ emergency powers involving the energy crisis at the end of last year’s legislative session, only to have the bill die without a vote in the more Davis-friendly Assembly. She‘s returning to the fray again this year. The secretive and frequently unreviewed actions carried out by Davis under his emergency powers are regarded by many as central to the continuing hangover of the energy crisis, even now that supplies and prices have stabilized.

Davis is criticized by many in the Legislature for essentially rewriting legislation, especially one racial-profiling bill. Racial profiling has been a sensitive topic for this governor. On the one hand, he and his advisers, seeking to satisfy people of color and white liberals, have often touted his moves against racial profiling. On the other hand, he has moved to undermine racial-profiling legislation to mollify his allies in law enforcement. Davis signed a bill funding a major study of racial profiling -- but eliminated the all-important categories of the reason for the vehicle stop and whether a search was conducted or an arrest made. Without that information, the survey is worthless.

Wrapping himself in the mantle of law enforcement is central to the Davis technique. When, as a Democratic political adviser, I spoke with the then-candidate for lieutenant governor in 1994, seeking advice on how to right the campaign of his running mate, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown, his very first suggestion was a police-union endorsement. This was not exactly central to her predicament.

But even as Davis pursues wider powers, some of his existing power is coming under fire. And he is giving way on huge issues on which he once seemed to draw a figurative line in the sand.

Organized labor and Burton insist on expanding the state workers-compensation program, and are circulating a statewide initiative to do just that. Davis, who has relied heavily on business executives for his record-breaking campaign war chest, vetoed three previous efforts to expand workers comp. But faced with an initiative, and with what Democratic consultants describe as the prospect of labor withholding support from his re-election campaign, Davis is seeking a compromise with Burton and labor representatives. An announcement of a big new workers-comp bill is expected shortly.

Davis’ vaunted long-term electric-power contracts, which he claimed for months had solved the energy crisis, have become so radioactive in the wake of critical press reports, moves against them by Burton and Davis‘ own Public Utilities Commission chair Loretta Lynch, and studies by the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies and the California legislative analyst, that the Davis administration is seeking to renegotiate many of them.

He’d better succeed there. Not only is Davis under serious fire from the Burton wing of the Democratic Party, but Republican gubernatorial front-runner Dick Riordan told the Weekly that he will make the contracts a centerpiece of his anticipated general-election campaign.

Environmentalists, the cover of whose support Davis has sought throughout his career, have grown very critical of his appointees to the state Forestry Board, which they say is dominated by timber-industry representatives. Accordingly, state Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-L.A.) is carrying a bill to change the composition of the board, tilting its membership more toward scientific and public representatives. Davis is balking at this incursion on his appointment powers, but Burton has countered by informing the governor that neither of his two recent appointees will be confirmed until Davis accepts the bill.


With a $12 billion to $14 billion state budget deficit and his proposed budget much derided from all sides as an attempt to defer serious fiscal decisions until after the election -- not to mention the looming billions in unreimbursed power buying from the state‘s general fund, which could make even a cobbled-together ”solution“ untenable -- Davis is in serious trouble from a standpoint of substantive policy. Which makes his controversial moves to gain still more power all the more odd.

What causes Davis to seek unprecedented powers, especially at a time in which the exercise of his existing ones has provoked so many? One former Davis colleague and longtime observer attributes the move to ”an overcontrolling manner,“ the need to assert a sense of control even when it is inadvisable or even impossible.

Of course, things could be worse for the governor, who has been mistakenly counted out many times before. The objectionable and secret Public Utilities Commission deal to bail out Southern California Edison rescued Davis from the humiliating defeat of his own bailout bill in the Legislature, and had the advantage of costing ratepayers several billion dollars less than his own proposal. The PUC plan eliminated some big breaks for Edison contained in the Davis bailout bill, as well as huge interest costs on a bond sale that proved to be unnecessary.

Davis told the Weekly that there is progress on the proposed record-setting power bond sale, which will reimburse the state’s general fund for the billions spent on buying electricity during the height of the crisis last year. The governor cited numerous negotiating sessions to deal with the internal impasse blocking the bond sale from going forward; the big obstacle was the Public Utilities Commission‘s refusal to give blanket approval to the state Department of Water Resources’ power-buying practices. When might there be a breakthrough? ”In two weeks,“ Davis said.

Davis also cited some progress renegotiating the $44 billion portfolio of long-term power contracts signed by his energy team at the peak of the crisis -- and at the peak of market prices. ”We have had 12 negotiating sessions. With their stocks depressed, some companies are much more open now. They see the wisdom to renegotiate given the turmoil in the market caused by the collapse of Enron.“

But these promising developments and the removal of the Edison bailout albatross may be matched by the governor‘s other problems, not the least of which is the essentially nonexistent Republican primary campaign for governor. With less than six weeks until the March 5 primary, front-runner Riordan is sitting pretty.

Although Davis and company had high hopes that the former mayor’s Republican rivals, investor Bill Simon Jr. and Secretary of State Bill Jones, would savage the amiably superrich Riordan, nothing of the sort has happened, and time is running dangerously short.

While, at least in theory, much can happen in a few weeks, Riordan has been free thus far to remain above the muted Republican fray and make points against Davis, unveiling TV advertising featuring the more than vaguely familiar slogan ”Tough Enough To Turn California Around.“

That‘s an echo from Riordan’s first mayoral campaign, only a slight change from the ”Tough Enough To Turn Los Angeles Around“ of 1993. And another telling sign of the influence over the former mayor and wife Nancy Daly of renegade former Democratic consultant Clint Reilly.

Davis not only has countered with a TV advertising campaign of his own that will run through the March 5 primary, he has launched an unprecedented attack on Riordan before he has even officially won the nomination, rolling out an anti-Riordan TV spot to score his contributions to anti-abortion causes as inconsistent with his professed pro-choice stance. Davis‘ positive message is a kaleidoscope of credit-taking on issues ranging from education to energy, tied together by the obviously focus-grouped slogan ”Effectiveness You Can Count On.“

It’s not clear how effective that slogan will be. In a Public Policy Institute poll last week, 54 percent said they believed Davis had been largely ineffective in dealing with the energy crisis. And every day that the long-term power contracts go unfixed and the billions in power costs go unreimbursed is a day for Dick Riordan‘s grin to grow broader. Perhaps Davis is wise to seek more power while he still can.

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