MORE

Party Animals

It was a presidential-wannabe kind of weekend in Los Angeles. Gray Davis, enshrined as the putative Comeback Kid of the 2002 elections at the annual California Democratic Party convention at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, fashioned himself after actor Michael Douglas in The American President. ”Your 15 minutes are up,“ he warned his Republican rivals, most notably former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan (presumably the cynically sanctimonious Richard Dreyfuss character), whom he has bombarded with millions of dollars in effective TV attack ads. ”My name is Gray Davis and I am the governor.“

Joining Davis, suddenly being discussed again as a Democratic presidential candidate, in what amounted to the first cattle call of the 2004 presidential campaign, were four other prospective candidates: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, and a previously undisclosed potential 2004 candidate, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

The four out-of-state prospective presidential candidates are still somewhat tentative in their plans. Davis is not, at least about what he is doing this year. ”What a difference a month makes,“ crowed Davis consigliere Garry South. With a series of powerful attack ads on abortion, energy and crime striking at the heart of former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan‘s credibility, aided by the reporting of several gaffes and the growing perception among the press that Riordan is unprepared for his candidacy, Davis not only no longer trails his highly touted Republican rival but leads him in several private polls.

Better yet from Davis’ standpoint, as South explained walking through the ARCO Plaza garage, he has driven Riordan‘s negatives sky-high in the Bay Area, where Riordan had exhibited surprising strength. And he has created a very messy Republican primary. For as Riordan’s lead over Davis evaporated, his lead over his Republican rivals, investor Bill Simon Jr., who is emerging as a clear second, and Secretary of State Bill Jones, diminished.

So excited is South by these developments that he seems close to convincing himself that Riordan will lose the Republican primary. But Kam Kuwata, Senator Dianne Feinstein‘s campaign manager, busy passing the word that DiFi will run for another term in 2006, disagrees. ”There is no Republican primary. Bill Simon is a terrible candidate,“ he scoffed. ”Gray has perfectly teed this up for him like a big softball. It’s right there for Simon to take Riordan apart on trust, but he hasn‘t done it and the election is right around the corner.“

And what of the governor himself? At last year’s party convention, at the height of the energy crisis, Davis bombed. This year, even with billions in yet unreimbursed power purchases from the state‘s general fund and huge long-term power contracts still in need of renegotiation, Davis starred.

Dumping his ponderous old Olympic Fanfare theme music, and following a tear-jerking eight-minute video that presented California under his administration as a paradise regained, Davis walked through the cheering crowd and took the stage to the propulsive strains of U2’s ”Beautiful Day,“ later leaving to the even more uncharacteristic strains of Van Halen‘s ”Jump.“ Delivering an unusually short and punchy speech replete with his Michael Douglas applause lines, Davis extolled his record on education and derided the Republicans as offering little more than vague generalities. Except on energy, where all three support full deregulation.

”In case my opponents were asleep while we were being gouged by generators and ignored by federal regulators,“ thundered the gray guv to wild applause, ”here’s a wakeup call: California will return to its disastrous deregulation scheme over this governor‘s dead body!“

Questions about a possible presidential run were among the first few offered up to Davis at his post-speech press conference, questions he deflected with no denial of interest. A somewhat tougher question concerned his refusal to return $119,000 in contributions from bankrupt energy giant Enron, prompted by Riordan spokeswoman Kim Serafin, lurking outside with press releases inaccurately claiming that Davis was the largest political recipient of Enron’s largess -- an honor, of course, belonging to President Bush and the Republican Party.

”No one in America fought Enron harder than I did last year,“ the increasingly relaxed Davis claimed. ”They opposed everything I did, from pushing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to re-regulating and enacting the State Power Authority.“

So why not give the money back? ”I come from the Jesse Unruh school,“ he explained. ”If you can‘t take their money and vote against them . . .“ Is that the full quote, governor?, the Weekly asked. Davis grinned as wife Sharon giggled. ”That’s a paraphrase,“ he said to much laughter. ”I don‘t know that we need to get into the full quote.“ (The cleaned-up version of the full quote from Unruh, the legendary ”Big Daddy“ of 1960s California politics, goes something like: ”If you can’t drink their booze, take their money, screw their women and then vote against ‘em, you don’t belong in politics.“)

So increasingly at ease is Davis that he made an unexpected appearance at the convention banquet roast of state Senate President John Burton, whose feud with Davis is one of the principal forms of entertainment in the state Capitol. Slipping into the room after the dinner began, Davis settled into a seat at the head table vacated by Warren Beatty, who had taken the dais with Burton and other notables roasting the fiery San Francisco liberal. As it happened, Davis sat next to Annette Bening, a Beatty‘s wife, who just happened to have played Michael Douglas’ partner in The American President, thus closing the circle with Davis‘ impression of the fictional president in his convention speech.

He sat with evident good humor throughout the often raucous program, even enduring this bon mot from former state Assemblyman Mike Roos: ”I was talking with John the other day and he said, ’I don‘t understand this talk about a feud between me and Gray. We’re like brothers!‘ And I thought, ’Yeah, the Mitchell Brothers!‘“ (referring to the famous San Francisco strip-club owners whose rivalry ended in murder).

The crowd laughed uproariously. Most of the crowd. ”Look,“ exclaimed Davis press secretary Roger Salazar. ”The governor doesn’t get it! Who?“

After Davis was distracted from the somewhat more charming Bening, he told the Weekly: ”This has been a very good day. There will be more, but every day is going to be a fight.“ Asked if he would actually spend time at his own party later that night (Davis is a sometimes distant, Gatsby-like host), Davis grinned and said: ”You bet. This is fun.“

With his mood moving from confident and relaxed to the brink of a distinctly un-Davis-like exuberance, the governor presided over a packed, high-energy crowd of partygoers, ending his evening, rather unbelievably, besieged by autograph-seekers.

This was in contrast to the distinctly underwhelming Riordan party exactly one week earlier at the state Republican convention in San Jose. The former mayor did not linger, slipping quietly out of town on his private plane. And even though I arrived late, I had no trouble getting the slice of party cake with the first ”R“ in his name. It was just another sign of Riordan‘s deflated prospects, the nature of which had been quite clear at the debate earlier that day.

”Oh, my God,“ groaned President Bush’s former California campaign chairman, L.A. mega-investor Gerald Parsky. Riordan, the informal choice of the White House to unseat Davis, had just insulted former Republican Governor George Deukmejian at the outset of the second Republican gubernatorial debate, to a chorus of groans and boos from the staunchly conservative Republican audience. Standing at the back of the hall, dapper in a navy suit, pale blue shirt and gold tie, Parsky grinned ruefully and shifted on his feet as he noted: ”That‘s Dick.“

Riordan has had a difficult time of it on the campaign since his problems during a bus tour of Northern and Central California. Indeed, after erupting in a screaming rage at a reporter who asked about his daughter’s death and after repeated problems trying to answer questions about his views on abortion, Riordan has sharply curtailed his public appearances. Meanwhile, the barrage of anti-Riordan TV ads launched by Davis continues, and seems to be having a serious effect on Riordan‘s standing. Riordan’s slide in the polls has given fresh hope to tyro candidate Simon, who is now reportedly putting millions of his own dollars into a late-starting TV barrage of his own to see if he can close the gap with the front-running former L.A. mayor.

So Parsky and state Senator Jim Brulte, the Legislature‘s most powerful Republican, already had plenty to worry about before the debate began. The two, installed by the White House as adult overseers for the fractiously right-wing state Republican Party, are nominally neutral in the gubernatorial primary, but the White House is known to prefer Riordan as more electable than the more conservative Simon and more acceptable than Jones, who had the effrontery to drop his endorsement of Bush in the 2000 presidential primary and back John McCain. But many top Republicans aren’t playing along. Parsky was dismayed when told that former Governor Deukmejian had just declared at a pre-debate press conference that he has ”no respect“ for Riordan and would not support him against Davis. ”He said that?!,“ asked Parsky. A few moments later, Parsky passed on Deukmejian‘s comment to Brulte, who shook his head and walked off.