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I. Just Plain Gray

This isn't the way Hollywood would have written it. Our largest, most cutting-edge state gears up to pick a leader for a new millennium; the people face a momentous choice. On one side, representing continuity, is, as you might expect, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class white male who has worked his way up the ladder of government positions over the past 20-some years. On the other side, symbolizing change, challenge and a new direction is – well, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class white male who has worked his way up the ladder of government positions over the past 20-some years.

It wasn't always thus. In the last four election cycles, the Democrats put forward women and minority candidates for governor – Tom Bradley (twice), Dianne Feinstein, Kathleen Brown – but none of them prevailed. Before that came two successful rounds with a zen bachelor who might be found on safari with Linda Ronstadt or emptying bedpans with Mother Teresa.

But in 1998, it's goodbye to all that novelty and quirkiness. In Gray Davis, the Democrats have reverted to the traditional gender and ethnicity for politicians, and the most traditional resume (chief of staff for Governor Jerry Brown, 1974-82; assemblyman, 1982-86; state controller, 1986-94; lieutenant governor, 1994-98). And on top of all that, there's the name. Gray – an achromatic color, having no definite hue, foggy, somber, drab.

Surely, we thought, there must be some spark, some recessive gene of craziness, lurking beneath Davis' placid exterior and orderly mien. We asked numerous ex-employees, collaborators and former colleagues to search their mental files for a colorful Davis anecdote – all in vain. Capsule descriptions from ex-colleagues of the Brown years ranged from “reserved, intelligent, disciplined” (former state Senate leader David Roberti), to “very organized, controlled, focused” (Business and Transportation Secretary Don Burns), back to “very intelligent, competent, strait-laced, disciplined” (former Health and Welfare Secretary Mario Obledo).

Then, finally, appeals court Justice J. Anthony Kline recalled a prank he says Gray instigated. California and Nevada politicos were at loggerheads over Lake Tahoe development, with Governor Brown blocking highway improvement on access routes in order to extract guarantees of water quality. Nevada's governor was due in Sacramento for a summit to resolve these issues but was late for the meeting with California transportation chief Donald Burns. According to Kline, Davis put Bill Newsom (later a judge) up to impersonating the Nevadan, and Newsom ran wild – spinning tales about how the Mob might make things tough for him if he didn't come through, and how his silent partnership in Tahoe whorehouses was suffering from California's intransigence. Don Burns recalls the incident with a chuckle, but has no recollection of Gray's having had a role in it.

But maybe, just maybe, Davis was seen as buttoned-up only in contrast to the hang-loose milieu of the Brown crowd. We expanded our search for color farther back, to Gray's college days at Stanford, where he majored in history, played golf and baseball, and joined the hard-partying Zeta Psi fraternity. The Zetas were actually thrown off campus during those years, says Davis frat mate Charles Bonner (now a Fresno merger-and-acquisition specialist), for such stunts as breaking girls' dorm windows with catapulted oranges and joy-riding in university fire trucks. But if this was Animal House, Davis was no Belushi.

“He was quiet,” Bonner recalls, “held back.” Though they later briefly shared a New York apartment while Davis attended Columbia University Law School, Bonner says, “I never really knew him that well – he was out late a lot, studying.” Politics was not yet Gray's focus, according to frat mates, though Stanford was a center of civil rights activism. “I loved to get into political discussions in those days,” Bonner says, “but I don't remember ever having one with him.”

To Dan Lungren and his handlers, Davis' role in the Brown administration is indication enough of a crazy left streak in the Democratic nominee. But while they insist there's no distinction between Gray and Brown, others insist they are as different as black and white.

II. The Un-Brown

The Lungren gang isn't the first to have made this attack. In 1986, when then-two-term Assemblyman Davis ran for state controller, his June primary opponent, state Senator John Garamendi, hammered him hard on the Jerry Brown connection with a barrage of TV ads linking him to two unpopular symbols of the Brown era – Rose Bird and the medfly. But when the votes were counted, Davis waltzed away with a two-to-one victory.

Republican Bill Campbell tried the same tactics in November with no greater success. Both of his challengers should have known better. Davis, to be sure, had some demonstrable links to the Brown gestalt: Rose Bird officiated at his wedding to wife Sharon (a stewardess who scolded him for being an inconsiderate passenger on their first meeting). But more generally, he seems to have been in the Brown circle without being of it. Davis survived the era without acquiring the aura.

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Brown and Davis, despite their shared values, struck voters as polar opposites in style and temperament. “Gray was the steady hand on the tiller,” says Lynn Schenck, who served as Business and Transportation secretary in Brown's second term. “The boss had 10 ideas a minute – nine of them, perhaps, impractical. Gray's role was to filter the ideas, examine what would work.”

Brown's coterie was the political embodiment of '60s culture. Disdaining limos, the governor traveled in a Plymouth. He abandoned the newly built governor's mansion to sleep on the floor of a downtown Sacramento apartment. House guru Jacques Barzhagi wore all black and burned candles in his office. Gray burned the midnight oil, working 12- to 14-hour days, but “never had a hair out of place or a wrinkle in his shirt,” says former legislative secretary Paul Halvonik.

Though an acute workaholic – and never a presence at favorite capital watering holes like the Torch Club – Davis by no means lacked the essential people skills for the job. Where legislators frequently found Brown standoffish, Gray kept the lines of communication open and enjoyed their esteem, if not close, personal bonds. Consequently, Davis did the bulk of legislative liaison work for the Governor's Office and led the administration's department heads through the lawmaking labyrinths when there was serious lobbying to be done, recalls Tom Quinn, chief of Brown's Air Resources Board.

III. Pursuing the Green

Gray Davis entered politics as a fund-raiser – a black art at which he's long been acknowledged a grand master. His initiation came in 1973, when he assisted computer tycoon Max Palevsky, finance chair of Tom Bradley's successful insurgent mayoral campaign. Davis' performance made quite an impression on the Westside millionaire. The next year, when Davis ran for state treasurer, the Palevsky clan anted up much of the kitty, donating between $6,000 and $9,000 to each of five different Davis committees. But the funding base for this ill-starred effort against the much more familiar and formidable Jesse Unruh, the legendary former speaker of the Assembly, never expanded beyond the Westside liberal community, and Davis finished an embarrassing third in the primary. He would never go into battle again without ample financial armament.

Eight years later, at the end of his tour as Brown's chief of staff, Davis decided to pursue an open Assembly seat in West L.A., to which end he raised almost a quarter million dollars even before he left Brown's office. Another rising young star, Alan Cranston protege Conway Collis, had his eyes on the same target, and a fund-raising war followed. An attempt to bluff Davis out by filing inflated financial-disclosure reports was a failure; Collis folded, leaving Gray an open field.

Davis could not have chosen a district better suited to his fund-raising prowess – or his long-term ambitions. Within its boundaries lay Beverly Hills and Bel Air, and persistent trips to those wells made him the Assembly's No. 2 fund-raiser in 1983 and '85, surpassed only by Speaker Willie Brown. In each of those years, Davis socked away about $450,000; among his colleagues, only two others raised half as much. In his safely Democratic district, he hardly needed those sums to win re-election. Instead, he raised his stature in the party by spreading funds around. He passed $97,000 along to defeat a Republican-backed 1984 initiative that threatened Democratic control of reapportionment, and passed on a few thousand to several candidates in close Assembly races.

Davis' tireless and single-minded schnorring has reaped big dividends this year, putting him in the unusual position of leading his Republican opponent in both current income and cash on hand. As of September 30, Davis had $8.2 million banked, compared to Lungren's $4.8 million. With a steady lead in the polls, the lieutenant governor has been able to tap into corporate coffers as well as the usual stalwart Democratic sources in labor, the law and entertainment.

Unions, especially public employees, continue to be a Davis mainstay. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has given him over half a million, the State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) $375,000, and the Communications Workers and Laborers added $150,000 each. Hollywood, as usual, has been generous. Disney donated $85,000 (not all in cash), Universal Studios $50,000 and Sony Pictures $25,000; Warner was well represented through its chairman Bob Daly ($30,000) and president Terry Semel ($25,000). Among industry liberals, Norman Lear ponied up $60,000; Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and producer Steve Tisch gave $50,000 each.

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Gallo Winery – not historically a bastion of Democratic support – was among the top corporate givers at $100,000, closely followed by Edison International and Hilton Hotels. Seagram (which owns Universal Studios) gave $50,000, with an additional $25,000 from its head, Edgar Bronfman. Other $50,000 donors included health provider PacificCare, developer Eli Broad and Hard Rock chairman Peter Morton. Also corporate players, in the $25,000 league, were Guess?, Occidental Petroleum and Mattel.

IV. How Green Is Gray?

Davis' commitment to environmental causes has been a constant of his career. As Brown's chief of staff, he was quietly supportive of the governor's “limits of growth” philosophy. It was Gray who had to listen to the complaints of his labor-union allies, says then-Resource Agency chief Huey Johnson, when Johnson turned down several dam projects they had been eagerly awaiting. (There were also furious “Friends of Jerry” to deal with when the public's coastal access intruded too close to their Malibu villas.)

Since striking out on his own, as assemblyman, controller, and lite-gov, Davis has been viewed by environmental organizations as one of their most consistent and proactive allies. The California League of Conservation Voters, which puts out an annual scorecard on legislators, gave him near 90 percent ratings for most of his years in the Assembly – higher than most Democrats, but not without lapses. One Davis bill established a hazardous-waste enforcement coordinator to assist local prosecutors. Others extended the life of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, including funding for purchasing nature preserves in Zuma Canyon and nature programs for children (though much of this was vetoed or scaled back in the face of opposition from Republican Governor George Deukmejian).

“We couldn't be on top of everything in the Legislature,” says Gerald Meral of the Planning and Conservation League, “so it was helpful that Gray would have his staff call up and ask us for input when new bills came through. It was outreach almost nobody else would do.”

But what has really won the enviros' enthusiasm has been Gray's 12-year performance – when controller, and then as lieutenant governor – as a member of the State Lands Commission, a little-publicized body responsible for stewardship of tidelands and state coastal and riparian land. Davis was a key player in the battle to keep oil drilling out of sensitive coastal zones, says the Planning and Conservation League's Gary Patton, who as a Santa Cruz County supervisor from 1975 through 1994 was himself in the thick of the fight. In 1987, Davis challenged oil-company applications for new leases in the Santa Barbara Channel off the UC campus, successfully facing down a billion-dollar suit by ARCO. After the Exxon Valdez spill, he co-authored the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act, which gave the Lands Commission new prevention powers and prescribed cleanup liabilities and penalties. And, cleaning up some old litigation, he settled suits with seven companies for fixing prices on oil extracted from state leases.

Oil was not his only target. Davis also instigated lawsuits against eight L.A.-area manufacturers for dumping PCBs and DDT into Santa Monica Bay; $13 million has been collected so far, with the DDT issues still pending.

In this year's battle for the state House, though, Davis has largely refrained from tooting his environmental horn. “I've been disappointed that he hasn't said anything much about the environment in this campaign,” says Huey Johnson. “Maybe he figures we have nowhere else to go – but I know he understands why [protecting the environment] is critical to California's health and survival.”

Aside from the environment, housing was Davis' primary interest during his legislative years. Having served on the Assembly's Housing Committee in his first term, he was encouraged by housing advocates to seek the committee's chair for the 1985-86 session. In that post he hired some excellent staff, says Marc Brown of California Housing Law Project, and was able to push through some modest but useful bills easing the low- and moderate-income housing crunch.

Among the products of this session were $3 billion in revenue bonds authorizing the construction of affordable apartments and the approval of tax credits that help low-income buyers qualify for home loans. Davis used his influence as committee chairman to prod a reluctant Deukmejian administration into receiving and prosecuting complaints of housing discrimination against families with children. On the Assembly floor, he helped Democrats beat back the attempt (successful a decade later) to prohibit strong rent-control laws like Santa Monica's, declaring, “I'm for local control, and there's nothing more local than a roof over your head.”

Davis wasn't an invariable advocate for renters, however: In 1985, he helped block cityhood for Marina del Rey, fearing that a pro-rent control regime would undercut the lucrative revenue stream flowing into L.A. County coffers from Marina business leases. And for a more comfortable class of citizen, another Davis bill protected the state's four million condo owners from exorbitant assessment increases and other abuses.

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V. Gray's Thin Blue Line

While not at the head of the Legislature's law-and-order pack that expanded so many criminal penalties in the 1980s, Davis did contribute a few measures cracking down on selected classes of offenders. The rather rare but emotionally explosive crime of childnapping was the focus of a 1985 bill that established a state reward fund for information helping to locate a missing child, got “wanted” posters put up in state buildings, and added two years to the sentences for kidnapping children under 14 and for sexual assault on a kidnapped child. Another Davis bill also made it a felony for landlords to knowingly allow their property to be used as a fortified “rock house.”

On the other hand, Davis resisted much of the law-and-order mania of the Reagan years. In 1983 and '84, he opposed attempts to institute a midnight curfew for 16- and 17-year-old drivers, and stood with just a dozen other Assembly members against 90-day sentences and $1,000 fines for illegal cable-TV hookups. He also backed a bill allowing minor misdemeanors – including loitering, public drunkenness and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana – to be prosecuted as infractions under some circumstances. He supported a bill to prohibit strip searches and body-cavity inspections of misdemeanor and infraction arrestees. Also against the prevailing climate, he backed measures forbidding the use of lie-detector tests for state and local government employees, and the requirement by private business that employees take written or psychological tests supposedly designed to determine their honesty.

Davis' own pick for his most important legislative contribution cuts across the lines of health, environment and education: It's a bill establishing standards for asbestos removal in schools. Taken as a whole, Davis' Assembly record was among that body's most liberal, reaping praise from the National Organization for Women and Americans for Democratic Action, while getting failing marks from the NRA and the California Chamber of Commerce.

On the campaign trail, however, Davis tacks sharply and predictably toward the middle of the road. Some of that tacking is largely rhetorical: His opposition to assault weapons, for instance, is carefully framed in the context of his own Vietnam service, “where I saw the damage assault weapons can do.” His commercials and literature stress that his assault-weapon opposition is all but universally shared by police agencies.

Police, in fact, are the thin blue line protecting Gray from any suspicion of softness on crime. Lungren took aim at that line in their September 23 debate, charging Davis had bought the law-enforcement unions' backing with his support for binding arbitration. Davis has indeed won backing from the lion's share of the state's police unions – most surprisingly, from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union of state prison guards that over the past decade has been one of the largest single contributors to Pete Wilson.

When not touting his law-and-order credentials, Davis has drummed hard on the points where Lungren is clearly at odds with the electorate – a woman's right to reproductive choice, oil drilling off the coast, assault-weapon curbs. While usually cautious in his selection of advertising themes, Davis can throw the occasional wild punch, as evidenced by his notorious 1992 Senate primary spots, which sparked broad outrage by linking opponent Dianne Feinstein to millionaire hotelier and convicted tax swindler Leona Helmsley. Nor – surprisingly – are his off-the-cuff campaign remarks always careful. During this year's primary, he charged Governor Wilson with “fanning the flames of discontent, anti-Semitism and bigotry,” later explaining that “you take a little license in these campaigns.” A similarly offhand characterization of Lungren as a “draft dodger” was discounted by Davis' staff as a jest.

Nonetheless, his come-from-behind victory over multimillionaires Al Checchi and Jane Harman in this spring's Democratic primary confirmed Davis' reputation as the canniest of campaigners – with, in this instance, the most effective tag line in years: “Experience money can't buy.” That Davis, of all people, ended up as the anti-big-money candidate is an irony he certainly never had envisioned.

VI. Gray's Rainbow

Could the Davis years be a period of social and political ferment despite low-voltage leadership? If Davis prevails this November – and he's led Lungren in virtually every poll over the past eight months – he'd be the first Democratic governor since the man he served as chief of staff, 16 long years ago. California clearly has a huge backlog of social needs – and some believe it is also home to a progressive activism that's been pent up for years.

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At least one veteran activist turned politico is certain that's the case. “Progressive activists put aside some of our deepest hopes in the Deukmejian-Wilson era,” says Westside Democratic state Senator Tom Hayden. “Gray in office would open a door to social change that's been bolted shut. It would make all the difference in the world.”