The Unhappy Warrior
|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
IT'S LABOR DAY, 1998, AND GRAY DAVIS IS AT Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Padres, to throw out the first pitch of the game. It seemed like a tailor-made campaign stop. After all, he was the captain and shortstop on his high school baseball team, and had been flying high on the campaign trail, drawing roaring crowds of enthusiastic supporters. But he is nervous, worried about what might go wrong. For the third time, he leans over to me, a journalist, and says, "Please be sure to remind me to have the announcer introduce me as 'lieutenant governor of California and Bronze Star winner.'" He figures if the crowd hears he won a Bronze Star, which he did in the Vietnam War, he's less likely to be booed.
We make our way onto the field, and the future governor warms up with the Padres, a team owned by his friend John Moores, who's donated $100,000 to the Davis campaign.
Finally, wearing a blue Padres cap and windbreaker, Davis stalks to the mound. He's introduced just as he wishes, his military-veteran status and home-team garb inoculating him against any boos. Come the wind-up, Davis fires a perfect strike across home plate, to loud cheers. He smiles for the first time in 10 minutes.
Four years later, Davis once again ends up at Qualcomm Stadium after a long day of campaigning, at a union-organized tailgate party. This time the crowds around the state have been smaller and less passionate. Will he again throw the first pitch? "I'm going to rest on my laurels and not press my luck." He didn't want to chance it, knowing that this time he might have been booed, Bronze Star and all.
Los Angeles Angels vs. New York Yankees
TicketsMon., Jun. 12, 7:07pm
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v. New York Yankees
TicketsMon., Jun. 12, 7:07pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. Kansas City Royals
TicketsThu., Jun. 15, 7:07pm
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v. Kansas City Royals
TicketsThu., Jun. 15, 7:07pm
Davis has many reasons to be cautious. He has never really been the popular choice. He wasn't the choice of the cognoscenti for governor in 1998; he wasn't even the first choice to be then-Governor Jerry Brown's chief of staff in 1975, the job that made his entire career possible. To make it to the top, Davis has had to work hard. He rarely took bold steps, preferring small, measured ones instead.
This is the way of Gray. A man so disciplined that he set out on a course to the governorship a quarter-century ago and, year in, year out, did all he could to achieve it.
In 1985, when Gary Hart was the Democratic front-runner for president, Davis had a 45-minute private meeting with the then-senator, peppering him with questions about the then-campaign and the 1972 primary victories of George McGovern, whose campaign Hart had managed. Afterward, Hart said, with a kind of awe, "I have just met with the most calculating politician in America."
Disciplined, cautious and remote, always remote, so much so that his top adviser has not been to his home in Los Angeles since 1998. I had been acquainted with him for nearly 20 years when, one day while I was speaking to one of his advisers on a speaker phone, he popped into the aide's office and said hello, then mentioned that his brother was there too, visiting from Japan. Brother? Japan? Later, when asked what Davis' brother is up to now, gubernatorial press secretary Steve Maviglio said: "I didn't know he had a brother."
Gray Davis is, to all but a few, an enigma. An important ally says: "You can spend two hours having dinner with him and walk away wondering who he is and what he believes."
The aloof Davis acts like someone who wants to be loved, but who is afraid to try because he doesn't think he can be. So, in classically American materialist fashion, he substitutes what to him is the next best thing: money. Not money for himself, for he owns very little other than a condo in West Hollywood and Israel savings bonds. No, it's money for his political committee, a chimera of identity which some think is more important to him than his own personality. Given the central role that money has played -- both in winning the office and in holding on to it this year -- it is perhaps not surprising that he confided in 1998 that if he lost the election, he would become a merchant banker, eschewing the more customary law-firm route for out-of-office politicians with law degrees.
In fact, the most interesting thing he does is raise money, and lots of it, sometimes in questionable ways. His widely noted money-raising mania has made him California's all-time champion, with his re-election campaign closing in on an astonishing $70 million. His obsession with money raises serious questions about the integrity of his "pay-to-play" administration, where few are heard in Gray Davis' Capitol without anteing up.
The press devours him for this, and Davis does remarkably little to cultivate reporters, going so far as to cancel this year's annual press barbecue at the governor's residence in Sacramento, a particularly odd thing to do given the poor state of his relations with reporters and his distant persona.
Barring a huge upset, Davis will win a second term next month, despite being one of California's most despised politicians. His poor public image and low approval rating of 40 percent are not the makings of the typical story of a politician losing public favor. It's a story of a politician gradually becoming a slave to his success at playing the political money game.
When the young Columbia Law School graduate, bored with his corporate law job, broke into politics, first volunteering for then-Senator John Tunney and later working as the money man for Tom Bradley, he gave voice to liberal causes, though possibly more out of calculation than as a true believer. His 25 years in public office are filled with events and stories that show Davis can still do good deeds, even if his heart doesn't seem to be in it. But more often than not, Gray Davis' quarter-century of public life is the journey of a good soul tarnished and compromised by ambition and the pursuit of money.
THE VIETNAM WAR KEPT DAVIS FROM STARTING a career right out of law school. He had been in the ROTC during college, so upon graduating from Columbia in 1967, he went to Vietnam for eight months as an Army Signal Corps officer. He was not a combat officer, though his helicopter was fired on several times during his visits to units to check on communications equipment. He became convinced of the precariousness of life, and not only because of his war experience. Back home in Brentwood, his family's finances had worsened. His father, an advertising executive with Time magazine, handled the family's books recklessly. Money, which once was plentiful in the Davis home, got so tight that his mother told him to call home only during the cheapest hours.
It is not surprising, then, that the hallmark of Davis' political career has been the never-ending search for the financial resources he needs to prevail.
Upon his return home, Davis joined a law firm, but he found corporate law stifling. Never a big idealist, Davis supported causes larger than his own self-interest. One such opportunity arose in Tom Bradley's L.A. mayoral campaign in 1973. Davis took a job as top aide to legendary liberal financier Max Palevsky, who was handling the money side of Bradley's campaign. "Gray was Max's 'bagman,'" says one old associate. "He drove around town picking up the checks. It looks like training for what he does now and, in retrospect, it was, but people forget what a cause Bradley's election was in those days."
Bradley, who had been savaged four years earlier by conservative Mayor Sam Yorty, would later be known as a cautious centrist given to brokering between moneyed interests -- not unlike Davis. But his 1973 rematch was a liberal crusade to oust Yorty, who in 1969 had used a race-baiting campaign, and elect the city's first African-American mayor. Says Davis, "I thought Bradley could make a difference for people who hadn't had much, and it was exciting to be part of it."
DAVIS SOON FIGURED HE WAS READY TO RUN FOR office himself. At 31, he launched an audacious campaign for state treasurer. His opponent: a legend making a comeback, former Assembly Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh. Unruh trounced Davis in the primary, and, perhaps validating Davis' view of the office, went on to establish the treasurer's post as one of the prime cockpits of California political finance.
Davis learned that it takes more to win an election than money. It's also about connections. On the campaign trail, he had repeatedly crossed paths with gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, who was impressed by Davis' intelligence and drive.
When Brown won in 1974, he had a problem. His top two aides, campaign manager Tom Quinn and pollster Richard Maullin, both wanted to be chief of staff. While the Brown family (represented in politics by Governor Pat, Governor Jerry and State Treasurer Kathleen) encouraged open debate, it disliked power struggles. Jerry Brown chose a compromise. Davis would become chief of staff and Quinn and Maullin would have fiefdoms of their own -- Quinn, the Air Resources Board; Maullin, the Energy Commission. Many thought that Davis would prove to be a toothless choice, and that one or the other of the two campaign supremos would ultimately emerge as Jerry Brown's consigliere. It never happened.
Gray Davis insinuated himself into Brown's political life, making himself indispensable until he resigned seven years later to run for office on his own. The buttoned-down chief of staff became the antidote to Brown, a free-flowing philosopher prince of a politician capable of stunning moments of focus and decisiveness but prone to letting matters float off into the ozone.
Virtually no one received an appointment to any post, however minor, in the Brown administration without getting at least a note or a call from Davis. The joke was that Davis implied to every Brown appointee that he, Gray Davis, was really the appointing authority.
As Brown's main public spokesman, Davis was involved in every aspect of the controversial governorship, from the 1975 farm labor struggle to the decision to promote energy conservation and renewable power and halt the spread of nuclear power plants. Indeed, it was in that context that I first met Davis, when he came to Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda's Campaign for Economic Democracy in 1980 to offer support for a Democratic-convention resolution to phase out nuclear power plants.
Davis admired farm-worker leader Cesar Chavez and had what one former Brown aide described as "a warm relationship" with him. "Gray was someone we could go to and count on," says United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. In 1998, Huerta returned the favor, showing up at Davis headquarters during the dark days of his primary campaign when most political experts wrote him off and thought he would be overwhelmed by super-rich rivals Al Checchi and Jane Harman. She spent more than a month organizing Latino support for Davis.
This year, Huerta pressured Davis to come through for farm laborers like his ex-boss had in 1975. It wasn't so easy this time. It took a massive march on Sacramento joined by politicians and Hollywood celebrities. Huerta, who nearly died a year earlier from an aneurysm, threatened Davis that she'd fast if he did not sign the measure. It seemed odd that a Democratic governor would have trouble signing the bill, which guaranteed binding arbitration for farm workers locked in dead-end negotiations with farm owners around the state. But Davis had received $1.5 million from growers. The prospect of Huerta fasting appalled Davis, and he finally signed a compromise version of the bill, with an expiration date set on the arbitration provision: It ends in five years, and a Republican governor could well do away with the measure if elected in 2006.
SEVEN YEARS MANAGING THE GOVERNOR'S OFFICE honed Davis' political skills and made him anxious about winning an election of his own.
The Assembly seat Davis chose was a masterstroke. Centering on Beverly Hills, its treasure trove of campaign dollars helped Davis, both in establishing a power base in the Legislature and in future runs for higher office.
He also drew heavily on financial support from Brown appointees and other donors he had met while working for the governor. For the first time in his political career, Davis now was in charge of coming up with his own message. Assemblyman Davis was not the avowed "centrist" we know now who so frequently speaks with a decidedly conservative cast to his rhetoric -- who can forget his lauding of autocratic Singapore as his idea of a well-ordered society? As a state Assemblyman from the Westside, he had a 95 percent voting rating from the left-liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). And his rhetoric still sounded like that of the chief of staff and chief spokesman for Jerry Brown, whose politics, while not reflexively liberal, were incomparably more provocative than what we have become accustomed to from the gray guv.
Indeed, Davis came into the Assembly the same year as fellow Westsider and Jerry Brown associate Tom Hayden. Hayden's voting record, measured by the ADA, was just a little more liberal than Davis', and the two men worked together in various ways through Davis' rise to statewide office. Their alliance included Hayden's "Big Green" omnibus environmental initiative of 1990 (attacked by the Chamber of Commerce as "radical social engineering," and which Davis strongly supported) and helped pave the way to Davis' election to the governorship, souring only with the centrist guv's rejection of various Hayden bills.
Another alliance that would prove to be even more durable formed shortly after Davis' 1982 election to the Assembly. Speaker Willie Brown made Davis a member of his leadership team with the unlikely title of "freshman class president." The two were even more of an odd match than Davis and Jerry Brown, with the terminally witty and acerbic Willie Brown making private cracks about Davis' relative stodginess. But the arrangement gave Davis real influence in the Legislature, which helped him further build his fund-raising base even as he compiled a liberal record. And Willie Brown's brokering of competing business interests to amass a campaign war chest would later be a model for Davis' own techniques as governor.
OF COURSE, DAVIS NEEDED TO INCREASE HIS NAME recognition if he was to make it to the Governor's Office. He got heavily involved in blatant self-promotion in the name of the public good. One such program was the Missing Kids campaign. His name and mug appeared alongside that of the missing youngster on milk cartons, billboards and ads around the state as part of a bold strategy to solve hundreds of missing-children cases. One problem, however: Most of the missing were runaways or caught up in domestic disputes.
What Davis needed most was the high profile of a statewide elective office. His alliance with the erstwhile political machine of Howard Berman; Berman's political partner, Congressman Henry Waxman; Berman's brother, political consultant Michael Berman; and Michael Berman's consulting firm partner Carl D'Agostino gave him the insider edge he needed in 1986 to make such a run. State Controller Ken Cory, once known, thanks to his own advertising blitz, as "the man the oil companies fear most," had seen his once very promising career devolve into a series of charges about shady political dealings. And the man was tired. So just a few months before the 1986 primary election, Cory, an ally of the Berman/Waxman machine, decided to step away from politics. Gray Davis got the heads up, along with the backing of the machine, and made quick use of it.
But there was a price. He would have to jettison his left-liberal media consultants, Bill Zimmerman and Sidney Galanty, who were also Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda's media consultants, in favor of Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino. Berman and D'Agostino were accomplished direct-mail consultants but had little experience in TV advertising. Zimmerman and Galanty, in contrast, were award-winning TV commercial producers. Galanty had worked for Hubert Humphrey, in addition to producing the groundbreaking Jane Fonda's Workout videos. Zimmerman helped the radical Native American movement and went on to work for the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in their election campaigns.
So Davis had a plan and a new team already in place to make a run for the State Controller's seat. He also had a highly ambitious opponent, John Garamendi, a onetime and future gubernatorial candidate and popular former majority leader of the state Senate. Despite trailing Garamendi in early polls, Davis won the Democratic primary going away, with his carefully honed fund-raising advantage -- and the extra help from Berman and Waxman -- proving to be decisive.
His reign as controller had one minor flap: his purported use of state staff and telephones to raise money for his political committee. The investigation never went anywhere in the legal system, but some former Davis aides believe he was fortunate. "Gray learned how to avoid getting in trouble while skirting the edge of disaster," says one now.
WHEN DAVIS HAS BEEN RECKLESS IN HIS PUBLIC life, it's usually a case of taking extraordinary risks in pushing for a higher office. Consider his run for the U.S. Senate seat against Dianne Feinstein in 1992. Alan Cranston had chosen not to run because of his involvement in the savings-and-loan scandals. The Senate seat Pete Wilson gave up after winning the governorship in 1990 had been filled by a Republican placeholder named John Seymour and was also available.
Davis had taken to hanging out at Berman and D'Agostino's BAD Campaigns offices at night. They cooked up a scheme to run Davis and then-Congressman Mel Levine, another close Berman-Waxman ally. It would be an ultimate political coup. Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino were funny, cynical operatives ä who were nonetheless mostly liberal in their views, and Davis enjoyed the camaraderie as much as the advice. It turned out to be a political disaster, wrecking the Berman/Waxman machine, ending Levine's career, and nearly ending Davis'.
What was to have been the Year of the Machine turned into the Year of the Woman. Barbara Boxer easily won Cranston's seat over Levine. Feinstein blew away Davis, whose misfiring campaign featured a TV ad that disastrously compared the former San Francisco mayor with convicted hotelier Leona Helmsley. Feminists and liberals were incensed. Davis spent much of the next year following his primary defeat apologizing to Democratic activists.
Soon after, Davis resolved to be part of the phenomenon of women seeking high public office. He faced down thenstate Democratic chairman (now State Treasurer) Phil Angelides for the right to be gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown's running mate in the 1994 election. It turned out that she underestimated the daunting challenge of running against an incumbent governor, even an unpopular one like Pete Wilson. She lost big, but Davis won, becoming the Democrats' top statewide constitutional officer as lieutenant governor.
Despite the loss, it was a cunning political calculation for Davis. If Kathleen Brown won, as a woman and a Brown she would be a prospect for a national Democratic ticket, and he could become governor. If she lost, he would have an office that sounds much more important to the voter than it actually is. This quite sophisticated view was reached by Davis, with his new top aide, Garry South. Cutting the tie to the late Berman/Waxman machine, Davis at last found a chief of staff who would not become part of the revolving-door alumni association. South is a glib, indefatigably colorful, highly aggressive and articulate fellow who functions as Gray Davis' id, saying and doing things the very controlled governor never would. It was a shrewd choice, someone very much unlike himself bringing qualities he does not seem to have, not unlike his wife, Sharon Davis, who is as vivacious as Davis is reticent. These odd-fellow companions play crucial roles in Davis' professional and personal lives, bringing needed qualities that otherwise seem missing.
As lieutenant governor, Davis pursued a cautious course, serving on and chairing some boards, working closely with organized labor, championing low tuition for public colleges, criticizing the form if not the substance of state budget deliberations. A capillaries, rather than jugular, strategy. It engendered no real hostility or great affection, but did keep his name very current. All the time, Davis moved behind the scenes, building a war chest for a 1998 Democratic primary run. He and South prepared for a general-election race against the conservative Republican they ended up facing: state Attorney General Dan Lungren.
First Davis had to win the primary. Most name Democrats wanted Senator Feinstein to run, though labor was mostly in Davis' corner. South and Davis believed that Feinstein would not run, that she was comfortable in the Senate where she was achieving seniority and did not relish hard-fought primary and general-election campaigns which would leave her dealing with difficult state issues in a capital city far from the salons of Georgetown. They also knew she was not looking forward to discussing her husband's business dealings with China, which was then very much in the news for its covert involvement in U.S. politics. They were right. Feinstein demurred. But Davis then found himself in the unprecedented position of running against not one, but two super-rich candidates, Northwest Airlines chairman Al Checchi and coastal L.A. Congresswoman Jane Harman. Davis' lead in the polls evaporated beneath barrages of advertising.
Davis, South and pollster Paul Maslin met with key financial backers, who were urging the campaign to spend Davis' painstakingly raised campaign funds to stave off the onslaughts of candidates worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Davis knew that this, the most important campaign of his life, was no time to panic. He, South and Maslin told the backers to cool it, keep the money coming, and good things would happen. Davis knew what he was doing. Like an overeager fighter, Checchi punched himself into exhaustion, attacking Harman, attacking Davis, promoting himself. After months of seeing his endless rain of ads -- he spent more than $40 million in the primary -- voters tuned him out. Harman, who spent more than $16 million, had little relevant experience, few ideas and never established a rationale for her candidacy. Davis spent his hard-earned $9 million effectively, driving home a fast-closing message that emphasized his years of familiarity with Californians along with a message of service, in the public arena and in Vietnam. It turned into a landslide, with Davis winning more votes than both his rivals combined.
DAVIS IS ONE OF THOSE POLITICIANS WHO MOSTLY sees people as the instruments to help him achieve his goals. It's how he sees his staff, contributors and other politicians.
"Gray doesn't really have friends," says one Davis associate. "He has supporters. His friends are his contributors."
And though he has mellowed somewhat as governor, Davis has been legendarily hard on his staff. During his run for the Assemby, he called his campaign manager, Stephen Rivers -- a former top aide to Cesar Chavez and Tom Hayden, now a publicist for a variety of Hollywood stars including Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone -- at all hours of the night, even after his election was assured. It was a practice that would annoy future generations of Davis staffers.
Once as he was being chauffeured to an appointment, he threw a cell phone at an aide in a fit of anger. A long list of Democratic operatives and staffers has quit. They form a sort of Gray Davis Alumni Association, sharing jokes about his remoteness and mimicking his deadpan, sometimes nasal-toned speech, though most are not publicly talking this close to the election.
Compared to its early days, the Davis team today is quite stable. Chief of staff Lynn Schenk and cabinet secretary Susan Kennedy run the Governor's Office, ä and the "Gang of Four," longtime chief strategist Garry South, media consultants David Doak and Tom O'Donnell, and pollster Paul Maslin, masterminds with Davis his second run for governor.
Stability is not without its challenges. In the Davis suite at the Biltmore on election night in 1998, staffers gleefully swapped a specially made T-shirt -- gray in color, naturally -- featuring an ant. It was a takeoff on a Davis remark to staff about some of their views being as significant as an ant's.
Treating people poorly sometimes carries a price. After Davis won the 1998 primary, South took a rare vacation. He nearly died in his native Montana from a sudden bleeding-ulcer attack. Rushed 70 miles along winding mountain roads to a hospital in his hometown of Miles City, South spent days recuperating. Davis called many times, trying to talk with him. But South's wife refused to let the gubernatorial nominee speak to his campaign manager.
Not surprisingly, Davis' one unwavering supporter is his wife, Sharon. Gray met Sharon Ryer, a flight attendant on Pacific Southwest Airlines, when he was chief of staff for then-Governor Jerry Brown. They'd encountered each other on the Sacramento-L.A. circuit, but it really sparked one night when Davis boarded the plane and had to hold the flight for Brown, who was running late. After they finally got in the air, Sharon, already primed to be miffed, took offense at Davis' manner and informed him that he was a very difficult passenger. Not unlike many men, Davis enjoyed being insulted by a woman he found attractive, and he apologized and later asked her out. Somewhat to her surprise, she said yes. But it's perhaps not that surprising, since her view is generally sunny, especially compared to what most view as her wintry husband, whom she describes as "not aloof, [but] stoic."
They were married in 1983 by Gray's close friend, Rose Bird, who conducted the ceremony in her capacity as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Bird and Jerry Brown met during their days at the University of California Berkeley, and she and Davis quickly became friends when she joined the cabinet. For decades, Davis' support of the death penalty has been the cornerstone of his public image as a tough-on-crime governor.
He took no public position in 1986, when voters recalled Bird for her opposition to the death penalty. But some associates of that era say he had mixed feelings, and was much more ambivalent. He wondered, for example, if the reality of executions might turn Californians against the death penalty. Today, Davis insists he never had any misgivings about the death penalty. "I have always been for it," he said in a discussion on his campaign jet in August. "I loved Rose as a human being," Davis said, "but I never supported her views on the death penalty. She was wrong on the death penalty, overturning virtually every capital case that came before her."
After 1986, Davis vowed never to be out-toughed on crime, moving ultimately from being a friend of squishy humanist Rose Bird to an admirer of hard-line Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew. When he ran for governor in 1998 against thenAttorney General Dan Lungren, Davis said: "I will have no enemies to the right on crime."
DAVIS HAS BEEN WARRING WITH PROGRESSIVES since he walked into the Governor's Office. The stage was set for what was to become one of the great political feuds in California history when Davis memorably told the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board in 1999 that the job of the Legislature "is to implement my vision." To which Senate President Pro Tem John Burton retorted: "What fucking vision?" The two have clashed repeatedly on issue after issue, with Burton pushing a left-liberal line and Davis holding the line for a more cautious centrism.
Things have gotten very personal between the two, especially on Burton's end. In his exasperation with the senator, who has stormed out of the Governor's Office several times, Davis says Burton is a San Francisco liberal who doesn't understand that a politics which plays to cheers in the City by the Bay and the Westside of L.A. does rather less well in much of the rest of the state. For his part, Burton has taken to denigrating Davis' military record, jeering "his Bronze Star without valor" on the day he shunned the governor's San Francisco signing ceremony for the global-warming bill, which put California in the lead in combating global warming by cutting tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. (Davis received the award for merit, rather than valor, which is a military term for combat heroism.)
Though this dysfunctional shotgun marriage actually works for the Democrats on issue after issue, with Davis prodded to make progressive decisions, it would work a lot better if the two weren't feuding. For all Burton's drive and cunning, Davis is after all the governor, and could make the moves to bring the relationship under control. He has not.
The irony is that each man needs the other. For example, Davis would not have had the opportunity to sign the global-warming bill, which he now views as one of the great achievements of his career, had Burton not taken charge and gotten it through the Legislature. Burton would not have this huge accomplishment for liberal politics had Davis not signaled his support to wavering legislators and decided to risk a threatened statewide referendum, funded by the big auto manufacturers, that could have complicated his re-election.
Although Burton and Davis have produced, with Burton often playing the prod, many major programs -- the first paid family-leave program in the nation, the establishment of California as a haven for stem-cell research, the restoration of the eight-hour workday, big increases in unemployment insurance and workers' compensation, energy-conservation programs, the farm-workers' bill, the nation's biggest renewable-energy requirement, the global-warming bill, a state public-power authority -- there is always room for disaster between the two.
Tom Hayden, who clashed repeatedly with his old ally once Davis became governor, thinks Davis is a very clear example of the power-politics ethic that most of the mainstream media actually embrace, their occasional protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. But he adds a caveat: "At least he has the grounding in unconventional ideas like renewable energy that he received in the Jerry Brown days." Indeed, his politics are much like those of Bill Clinton, who is beloved in many liberal circles. But he doesn't have Clinton's personality.
Davis makes no apologies for his style -- or lack of it. "Of course I want to do good things," he says. "But I want to do things that I know will work. I'm not a show horse, but I can get the job done." A few years ago, Davis told an anecdote that may yield more insight. "I like the old story about FDR," he said. "The one where an advocate meets with President Roosevelt and at the end FDR says, 'You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.'" And it is true that big things have happened on Gray Davis' "watch," as he likes to call it. "I am at the center of where California really is politically," Davis says. "You may not like it, but this is a big, complicated state. I have to be in office to do things. Things have to be done in their time."
WHEN FORMER GOVERNOR PAT BROWN DIED IN 1996, the players involved in California Democratic politics crowded into San Francisco's St. Cecilia's Church for his funeral service. Davis, then lieutenant governor, was California's ranking Democrat. He had longstanding ties to the Brown family, having been Jerry Brown's chief of staff and Kathleen Brown's running mate, and he cited Pat Brown's role as builder of the modern-day California as an inspiration for his own governorship. But on this day, as the late governor's casket was carried out of the church, Davis was by himself. With his former boss standing nearby but very much apart, Davis cast his gaze across a number of familiar faces, looking for someone to stand with him. No one did. So the future governor stood where he was, alone again, in the crowd.
Davis has achieved the office that he set out to win 25 years ago. But he still is alone, and now he may have nowhere to go.
"It took me over 20 years to move 20 feet," he says, the distance between his office as Jerry Brown's chief of staff and the Governor's Office. He and his political team were ramping up a presidential campaign exploratory bid in the days after Al Gore's 2000 defeat. The power crisis of 2000, when Davis cut so many corporate-friendly contracts to keep the lights on, short-circuited any presidential plans.
But it's not only the national prize that is eluding Davis. In many ways, for the man whose guiding principles are precariousness, control and caution, what's missing is pleasure.
Davis speaks reluctantly about the psychic rewards of office. "I can't control everything. With every morning comes the prospect for a big surprise. I don't know what the Food and Ag Board is doing today. I can't know what all these boards are doing. I can't keep track of the staff and the cabinet." Asked how he would rate his enjoyment of the state's top job on a scale of zero to 10, he says with exasperation, "Why are you asking me a dime-store existential question?"
"He is not a happy governor," says one top Davis appointee. "I don't think he enjoys the job. It's sad, because he has worked his ass off to get here."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.