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Target Practice

Call it the Gray Davis technique. It has enabled him to shoot down his most dangerous Republican rival, former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, and move out to a double-digit lead in a new Field Poll over Republican nominee Bill Simon Jr. All the while, of course, without Davis overcoming his own negatives with voters.

On the one hand, his technique has a great deal to do with his cool, controlled manner, seemingly calculating every move for political advantage. But there is another shade of gray, first lady Sharon Davis, who is sent to campaign in places the governor would be relatively unwelcome. The Weekly spent two days on the road last month with Sharon Davis. But first, some telling scenes of the governor‘s technique in action.

Last week he spoke at a crime victims’ rally on the Capitol steps, where state prison-guards chief Don Novey lauded him. “Gray Davis is to the right of me on crime!” exclaimed the fedora-wearing power broker, whose union has pumped millions into the governor‘s law-and-order-boosting campaigns.

The next day, Davis was in Silicon Valley, where the Reverend Jesse Jackson praised him as a “man of destiny.”

How is it possible for an unpopular governor to unite a hardliner like Novey and a left-winger like Jackson on successive days? Bill Simon still appears to have no idea of what he is up against, though his faltering fund-raising effort just received the boost of $4.5 million from events in Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley featuring President Bush. Simon had been claiming a sizable lead, in purported polls touted in a faux political newsletter actually sent out by his campaign consultant. The 43-29 Davis lead in a real poll, the Field Poll, is a further blow to Simon’s credibility, already reeling from a growing sense of his evasiveness setting in among the press, whom Simon dodged for four weeks after a bad news conference where he couldn‘t answer hard questions on abortion and energy deregulation. After foolishly reacting to Davis’ criticism of his refusal to release his tax returns -- now a customary practice for major candidates -- by telling a San Francisco radio interviewer that Davis sounded “like Karl Marx,” he was literally forced to again talk to the press. It hasn‘t gone well for him. It’s not that Davis is getting more popular; rather, Simon‘s ratings have gone down.

Still, Davis knows he has huge problems. After being lauded by crime victims and police officials, a persistent local TV reporter cornered him later in the day on the budget crisis, which is ballooning even further with weak tax receipts. “Look, you want a soundbite, right?” Davis finally said. He laughed twice, mirthlessly -- resembling a guy in one of those “Never let them see you sweat” commercials -- then looked off to the side for 20 seconds as he composed himself, finally explaining once again that things would be tough and required hard choices, and then escaped to another event.

The next day in Silicon Valley was more fun for Davis, a brilliant piece of political packaging in which he managed simultaneously to appeal to the left and the center. Jesse Jackson’s RainbowPUSH and the Davis administration jointly sponsored a business-development conference with many top Silicon Valley executives. It was a powerful and calculated moment. Davis, who is lagging in black support, gained the fervent embrace of the nation‘s best-known black leader. Jackson and his supporters gained direct access to top state officials (half of the Davis cabinet was on hand) for small-business contracts and the imprimatur of the governorship in dealing with the high-tech industry. Mostly white high-tech leaders, including Intel CEO Craig Burnett, who introduced Jackson, gained the good graces of a man who is well known for frequently causing big trouble for big corporations through demonstrations and boycotts.

The velvet glove to the Davis fist of realpolitik is 48-year-old Sharon Davis, a former flight attendant who piqued the interest of her future husband by informing him that he was “a very difficult passenger” during a flight in the early 1980s, when he was Jerry Brown’s chief of staff. The Weekly went with her to the conservative hinterlands of California.

Overall, Sharon Davis is more liberal and open than Gray. With school kids, she is warm and focused, engrossed in conversation with people too young to vote for her husband. She is also a shrewd political operator well versed in policy who can fire up the Democratic faithful, as she did at lunches and dinners in colorful rural settings. She also spent half an hour arguing with me about her husband‘s energy policies, and much more time discussing this pol and that pol. Her husband’s famous feud with the state‘s most powerful legislator, Senate President John Burton, a fiery San Francisco liberal, is not far from mind. “Why is he [Burton] so popular with reporters and activists?” she wonders. “He says such outrageous things.” Which is a very good reason why he is popular with reporters and activists. “He could never act like that if he were governor,” she points out. “He’d be too far out there. Gray is too responsible for that. But Johnnie Burton is entertaining if you don‘t let it get to you.”

“Sharon Davis is a godsend,” says one ranking Democrat. “She’s so down-to-earth and personable, and you can see him light up around her, which is a nice change. And more to the point, she can go into places where he would stir up as much opposition as support, where she is all positive.”

For two days, we journeyed to such places, in the farther reaches of rural central and northern California, making our way through dusty farm and ranch country, past one of the highest mountains in the West, the mystical Mount Shasta, and on through the lush coastal zone of the far North Coast. The first lady -- who favors conservative St. John‘s knits with more daring Ferragamo accessories -- has a darkly conspiratorial view of some power companies, especially Enron, which she says wanted the state’s electric power-transmission lines to give it “total control over the California market.” Enron, she said, echoing other analysts, wanted to use such control “to force us into blackouts.”

But her view is generally sunny, especially next to her comparatively wintry husband, whom she describes as “not aloof, stoic.” She is equally at home delivering a fiery denunciation of her husband‘s Republican opponents at a Shasta County Democratic fund-raising luncheon as she is taking part in a tour of a progressive-minded natural-history museum -- made viable with Davis-supplied state funds -- in the right-wing Sacramento River city of Redding.

She ends the day at a shit-kicker restaurant in Red Bluff the night before a rodeo -- the Palomino Lounge, replete with a Gray Davis banner beneath a portrait of “Buffalo Bill” Cody -- headlining a dinner for Tehama County’s Democratic faithful. She cuts two hours of interaction short to catch her favorite show, The West Wing, in her room at the decidedly unchic Red Lion Inn.

Everywhere she receives glowing media coverage, with not a Republican protester or counter-spokesperson in sight. “We won‘t win in these communities,” she notes shrewdly, “but we can reduce the Republican margin.”

After more stops in Eureka and Humboldt County, we’re back to the airfield for the flight to L.A., where she will speak to the Women‘s Leadership Foundation, whose annual fund-raiser features a fashion show of prominent males, including L.A. Mayor James Hahn. “I couldn’t get Gray to do it,” she says, pausing before she laughs merrily.

In public, her husband seldom looks like he is having fun. But with the various facets of the well-honed Davis technique very much in gear, things are going about as well for him as they can be, given the recession and the state‘s budget and energy crises.


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