CHICAGOGray Davis blew into the windy city this Monday, unheralded, to talk to the union presidents gathered here for the AFL-CIO’s summertime executive-council meeting and to put the touch on them for 10 million bucks.

I report this not in anger, for any pol confronted with the kind of challenge that Davis must face in just two short months would be embarked on a kindred round of mega-begging. A Howard Dean might be able to score the $20 million that Davis has set as his overall target through small donations on the Internet. But Dean has cultivated thousands of enthusiasts, while Davis, who heads a state of 35 million, has scarcely a one.

He certainly didn’t seem to have many in the Drake Hotel, where labor’s leaders had convened to focus on the Democratic presidential contest. Union chiefs tell horror stories of Davis’ reluctance to agree to last year’s bill providing arbitration in farm-labor disputes; they note his aversion to populist causes and add that Davis is so shy about touting the good bills he has signed that their members don’t credit him with any significant achievements.

The polls back that up. The union presidents were looking at some mighty mournful numbers from labor’s latest California polling. Fifty-one percent of likely voters favor dumping the gov (“and it’s a hard 51 percent,” one president said), with just 39 percent opposed (“and it’s a soft 39 percent,” he added). If Richard Riordan’s name appears on the ballot, that 51 percent rises to 54 percent. And worst of all, from the presidents’ point of view, their own members were polling pretty much like the state as a whole.

Yet the unions are committed to sticking with Gray and discouraging any other Democrats from jumping into the race. The executive board of the California Labor Federation, the state’s AFL-CIO governing body, reaffirmed that position on Saturday. “This election is not about a choice of candidates,” Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the state Fed, said in Chicago. “We don’t want to legitimize the theft of last November’s election.”

If the union leaders had more positive feelings about Dianne Feinstein, they might feel less adamant about propping up the toppling Davis. But it’s hard to conscientiously represent working people and contemplate Feinstein without retching. In just the past several weeks, Feinstein has sided in committee with Orrin Hatch, and against all her fellow Democrats, to limit the recompense workers can collect from employers for poisoning them with asbestos. She has come out in favor of private-school vouchers within the District of Columbia. And who can forget her vote for Bush’s 2001 tax cut, the only one of the 12 Democratic senators to side with Bush who came from a solidly Democratic state?

A quick survey of California and national labor capos in the Drake Hotel’s lobby yielded a clamorous anti-DiFi chorus. “We hate her,” said one leading California unionist. “She’s never done anything for us,” said another. “I’m not sure that Riordan wouldn’t be better for labor than Dianne,” said a third. “She’d probably appoint a clone — like [South Bay Congress Member] Jane Harman — to succeed her in the Senate,” grumped a fourth.

But Feinstein, all agreed, is the only Democrat who could clear the field and defeat the Republicans. And since the very thought leaves them cold, that brings labor’s chieftains back to square one — that is, to opposing the recall and having no backup plan, no down-ticket Democrat to support, at all.

A few old hands question this strategy. “If there isn’t a popular Democrat who’s running,” says a veteran union political operative, “just getting enough Democratic turnout to defeat the recall will be all the more difficult.” But for now, labor seems determined to fight it out on the recall question only, and the $10 million Gray requested seems likely to be forthcoming.

Not that labor isn’t placing some conditions on its contributions; the leaders are telling Gray that to rally their members — and his base — he will have to veer sharply in a populist direction. Davis’ decision to sign a bill permitting illegal immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses is a step in the right direction. Davis himself told me that he’s also committed to pushing Assembly Member Jackie Speier’s bill that would let consumers keep their credit and personal records safe from marketers’ prying eyes. (This is a bill that Democratic legislators beholden to the banking companies have repeatedly killed in committee.)

Some in labor are also urging Davis to agree to sign SB 2, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton’s bill to require California employers to join buyer pools to provide health insurance to their workers — in essence, to mandate a job-based, employer-subsidized universal health-care system. Union leaders are far from certain that the passage of this or the other bills will suffice to spare Davis from the recall gods. But, they conclude, the bills certainly can’t hurt his campaign, and at least he’ll go out in a blaze of unaccustomed glory.

Some administrations are famous for their first hundred days. Davis — who shies from the business of legislating unless absolutely necessary — may be remembered for his final 60.

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