Gray Breaks With Gore

When Al Gore unveiled his megacampaign-finance reform proposal earlier this week, he may not have realized that his No. 1 supporter in California would take one look at it and blanch. But that seems to be precisely what has happened.

We already knew that Gray Davis was no friend of campaign-finance reform. For the governor, who is also the state chair of the Gore campaign, fund-raising isn’t a chore; it‘s a calling. Since he took office in January 1999, he’s raised a steady, amazing $1 million a month for his campaign coffers, though he‘s not up for re-election until 2002. And in the recent primary elections, the one cause besides himself for which Davis raised serious money was -- well, the cause of raising serious money. Davis repeatedly hit up donors to defeat Proposition 25 -- the Unz-Miller campaign-finance reform initiative.

So what is Davis to do now that Vice President Al Gore has unveiled a giant campaign-finance reform proposal of his own? On Monday, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee proposed banning soft money in federal elections, and creating a $7.1 billion fund from private tax-deductible contributions, the interest on which would be doled out by a federal commission to all congressional candidates. If the funds are insufficient to purchase broadcast commercials, those public-spirited folks who run TV stations would be required to provide the time free.

Since Gore says this proposal would be the very first one he would send to the Hill as president, one might reasonably think that his California campaign chairman would at minimum support Gore‘s plan. But if one did, one would be wrong. After talking with Davis and his consigliere Garry South, Davis’ press secretary Michael Bustamante told me on Tuesday, the governor‘s position is that he has “not taken a position on this. It’s certainly intriguing,” Bustamante continued. “Be that as it may, Al Gore is going to win the presidency because he‘s right on the issues.”

“Is this one of them?” I asked.

Bustamante sighed. “I think -- Bush isn’t Mr. Clean when it comes to fund-raising practices, that‘s for sure. At the end of the day, what matters is a woman’s right to choose, education and the environment. Campaign-finance reform is an issue that has merit, and it‘s good that the vice president has come forward with a plan.”

In other words, the Veep’s California chairman declines to support what is now the Veep‘s signature proposal. Then again, if Davis supported this measure at the federal level, how could he oppose it at the state level? In fact, what’s stopping some reformer Democratic state legislator from introducing a version of the Gore plan in Sacramento right now? Let‘s see how many Democrats are willing to vote against Big Al’s big idea. Let‘s see what Gray does should the Legislature plop it on his desk.

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