Photo by Jack Gould

“Some good things have happened” during his tenure as governor, Gray Davis noted defensively in his concession speech, and indeed they have. That Davis had to introduce this subject just as power was slipping irrevocably from his hands, however, suggests his grave limits as a politician.

Indeed, for all that Tuesday’s recall was touted as a revolt against professional politicians, it’s important to note just how cosmically inept a professional pol Gray Davis always was. Most of the skill sets that pols employ were foreign to our soon-to-be ex-governor. Pols, at minimum, must be able to haggle with their fellow pols, to cultivate supporters and allies, to articulate some principles and defend their record. Davis, at maximum, was never really able to do any of these.

Politics, in fact, made him uncomfortable; it required too much human interaction. “You’ve got to touch people, relate to them, tell them what you care about,” one of the state’s more able Democratic politicos told me at Davis’ election-eve rally in downtown L.A., a sparsely attended affair populated chiefly by union and political staffers. Davis was comfortable putting the touch on people, but touching them — physically, emotionally, ideologically — was out of the question.

Certainly, he did nothing to drive Democrats to the polls. According to the exit polling, Democrats constituted just 39 percent of voters in the recall, while Republicans made up 38 percent. By contrast, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 42 percent to 37 percent in the gubernatorial race of 1998, and by a full 10 points — 44 percent to 34 percent — in the higher-turnout presidential vote of 2000.

In the recall, Republicans voted like there was no tomorrow. Democrats voted like there was no election.

A quarter of the Democrats who did vote, moreover, voted to recall their governor, and fully one-third of Democrats who classified themselves as moderates or conservatives. The increase in the vehicle-license fee certainly didn’t help Gray among working-class Democrats nor, save among Latinos, did the bill granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. But Gray’s approval rating, and the percentage of people telling pollsters they’d vote No on the recall, were pretty much the same before he signed these bills as they were after. The verdict on Gray didn’t waver much with shifts in public policy, in large part because he so distanced himself from the particulars of public policy.

Only in the closing days of his campaign could Davis finally bring himself to take credit for legislation he had signed: the restrictions on greenhouse gases, the restoration of the eight-hour-day standard for overtime pay, the limits on financial institutions’ sharing customers’ credit reports and, just last Sunday, the extension of health insurance to 1 million working Californians.

Failing to identify himself even with legislation that most Californians welcomed — much of it foisted upon him by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and other Democratic legislators — Davis became, in the public’s mind, the personification of the state’s corrupted, money-driven political culture. Until the recall, he’d overcome this handicap by spotlighting his opponents’ shortcomings. But in a recall election, the spotlight stayed unswervingly on him.

And no one shone it more pitilessly than the populist right — the talk-radio hosts, the local Limbaughs. They seized on the driver’s-license bill and the car tax. Of course, if Republicans in the Legislature had been willing to raise taxes on the rich, regressive measures like the car tax and the tuition hikes at public colleges and universities would have been unnecessary. But you were likelier to pick up a working knowledge of quantum mechanics on talk radio than you were to learn of the GOP’s role in the state’s fiscal crisis. Instead, you learned that the state’s business climate was the worst in the nation, which it’s not; that taxes were the highest in the land, which they’re not; and that the state has a $38 billion deficit, which it doesn’t.

Just about the only clear progression apparent in the exit polling on Tuesday’s election correlated support for the recall with level of education. High school grads backed the recall at a rate of 61 percent; voters with some college at a rate of 59 percent; college grads at a rate of 57 percent; and voters with postgraduate study at a rate of 45 percent. What this may refract is the differing levels of access to sources of information and misinformation about California politics. It may help explain why unions, which have had an impressive record of steering their members into the Democratic column over the past decade, were able to persuade just 55 percent of their members to oppose the recall.

But the great depressants of Democratic voting in this election were the Democratic candidates. Davis entered the campaign with stratospheric negatives. Cruz Bustamante started out as a relative unknown to California voters and managed to drive his own negatives to breathtaking heights in a few short weeks. It wasn’t other candidates’ attacks on Cruz that turned California voters against him. It was his own reliance on tribal casino money and, when the heat on him for taking that funding grew intense, the patently absurd maneuverings of his consultant, Richie Ross, to “relinquish” the funding without really giving it up at all. On Election Day, fully 58 percent of voters told exit pollsters that they had an unfavorable opinion of the Cruz. On election night, he offered a concession speech that was a love song to the tribal casinos, the single most tone-deaf performance in American politics since Trent Lott sang Dixie.

While Cruz was methodically immolating himself, his opponent wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire. In the exit polling, 50 percent of voters volunteered a favorable opinion of Arnold Schwarzenegger, while 45 percent offered an unfavorable one. Arnold’s campaign was hardly a masterpiece of its kind. He won because voters were determined to dislodge Davis, because the Democrats offered an abysmal replacement candidate, and because his moderate views on social issues enabled him to pull down independent and Democratic votes. He won because Republicans concluded that Tom McClintock didn’t have a prayer of unseating Davis.

Schwarzenegger understood from the start that positioning himself as the anti-Davis meant railing against the state’s political system as such. Beyond that, his campaign really didn’t matter all that much. He took no real position on what exactly he’d do to balance the state’s next budget, and suffered little damage when a number of women — enough to file a class-action suit — came forward to charge him with sexual harassment. What he did on the campaign trail, and what his accusers said he’d done, were of no great moment to voters. For them, this election was about Gray, not Arnold.

In Sacramento, Democrats have already decided to welcome Schwarzenegger as if he’d been elected governor in a normally scheduled election. “[State Senate leader John] Burton’s office decided to be accommodating to him in everything small,” one Sacramento Democrat says, “so they can oppose him on anything big.”

Or perhaps not. If Sacramento is to break the gridlock occasioned by the requirement for a two-thirds vote on state budgets, Schwarzenegger will have to persuade at least some of his fellow Republicans to raise some taxes. In return, though, Democrats will have to give up something, too. Like the new governor, they’d be loath to cut spending on education, and Burton would kibosh any cutbacks in spending on health care. If the Democrats have to give someone up, that would leave trial attorneys on matters of tort reform and applicants’ attorneys on issues of workers’ comp. These groups are critical to the Democrats’ pocketbooks, but do nothing for the party’s image.

Burton remains the Democrats’ indispensable man under Schwarzenegger as he was under Davis. His relationship with Davis was famously rocky, but in an odd way the legacy of this most liberal of legislative leaders and that of this least principled of governors are profoundly intertwined. Davis acknowledged as much last Sunday at Kaiser’s Westside Hospital, as he signed Burton’s bill extending health coverage to a million hitherto uninsured workers. “John and I make an interesting pair,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ve done some great things together.”

As he spoke, Davis surely sensed that the end of the day for his career was imminent. The governor who once said that the role of the Legislature was to implement his vision expressed his hope that history would remember him in good measure for implementing John Burton’s.

A version of this article has appeared in the Washington Post.

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