Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the real test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and not be paralyzed by the standoff, what then are we to make of Gray Davis — who seems unable to act unless he’s holding contradictory ideas? California’s new governor has now signed his first budget and completed his first seven months in office, and about the only thing we can conclude is that Davis is routinely, habitually, chronically paralyzed — save in those instances when he’s able to unveil conflicting policies. If Davis can’t move left and right simultaneously, he won’t move anywhere at all.

Consider his solution to the Proposition 187 conundrum. Like every Democratic official in the state, Davis opposed the 1994 immigrant-bashing initiative. When he became governor, he had the ability to put 187 permanently to rest. A federal judge had already struck down much of the measure, and simply by dropping Pete Wilson’s appeal of that ruling, the statute would die. Instead, Davis delayed his decision on the appeal (soliciting input through a mediation process) until he had a suitably contradictory position to pair it with.

On the very day that Davis announced he’d drop the 187 appeal, much to the satisfaction of the left, he also let it be known that he’d veto a bill intended to mitigate (symbolically, infinitesimally) the affirmative-action-abolishing Proposition 209, much to the satisfaction of the right. Authored by Senator Richard Polanco and sent to the governor with bipartisan support, the bill said only that the state should support nonbinding outreach programs to minorities and women. The same bill had passed the Legislature in 1998, with the blessings of GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren, only to be vetoed by Wilson. No one had anticipated Davis’ veto — but then, no one had anticipated Davis’ timing: that on the very day he finally stood up against 187 and the anti-immigrant right, he also would win the blessing of conservative capo Ward Connerly for upholding the spirit of 209.

“In this administration, the governor gives with one hand and takes away with the other,” says Angie Wei, policy analyst for the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative. “In the budget, we won a fierce fight on [extending] prenatal care [to undocumented immigrants], but on the same day, in the same budget, he took away their long-term-care provision.” The state program providing financial assistance to undocumented immigrants in nursing homes had been signed into law by George Deukmejian 11 years ago and had survived Pete Wilson’s cutbacks in the trough of the recession. It fell prey to Gray’s blue pencil last month.

Indeed, the lion’s share of Davis’ cuts — 46 percent of them — came from health and human services, though those programs constituted just 26 percent of overall state spending. The Legislature had extended Medi-Cal to families with children with incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty level; Davis cut that back to 100 percent and reimposed an assets test for eligibility. The Legislature was primed to put more funds into In-Home Supportive Services, the program that pays for home-care workers around the state; Davis reduced funding to the point that the counties responsible for administering the program will likely not be able to cut those minimum-wage workers a raise.

Davis did shepherd through a modest education program of his own, providing more funds for teacher training, and mandating a statewide high school graduation test in four years’ time. He signed bills banning assault weapons and limiting the frequency of gun purchases; he repaired relations with the government of Mexico. But woe to those who’d like the state to move beyond his own painfully modest agenda. Assembly and Senate committee chairs have been told in no uncertain terms that he’s not ready for the HMO reforms percolating through the Legislature.

The oddity in all this is that Davis isn’t distancing himself from the unpopular parts of the liberal agenda (he did that 15 years ago), but from its motherhood-and-apple-pie components. HMO reform, as any pollster will attest, is wildly popular. Programs to help the working poor, like the one to give minimum-wage home-care workers a raise, have none of the stigma of welfare. Seventy percent of respondents to an L.A. Times California poll support a tax hike dedicated to education. The current boom — and the rise in public support for selected governmental endeavors — offers the best opportunity in decades to address the long-term needs of the state, an opportunity Davis resolutely declines to take.

And not just that: He’s sounded positively petulant that there are actually members of his political party who’d like to seize that opportunity, who have priorities other than his own. Asked, in his now notorious July 20 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, why he wasn’t placing more emphasis on health care — California, after all, leads the nation in the number (7 million) and percentage (22) of medically uninsured — Davis responded, “Did you see one [Davis campaign] commercial on health care?” In chasing such rainbows as expanded health coverage, the legislative Democrats were way off base. “They have a totally different view of the world than I do,” Davis continued. “People expect government to reflect the vision that I suggested. Nobody else in the Legislature ran statewide. Their job is to implement my vision.”


Which would effectively limit the Legislature to managing myopia.

Davis is hardly the first Democratic governor to arrive in Sacramento only to find Democratic Legislators with agendas of their own. When Pat Brown took power in 1958 — as in Davis’ case, after 16 years of Republican rule — he too confronted a Legislature exploding with nearly two decades’ worth of unenacted reforms. Brown had his own ambitious master plan for education, next to which Davis’ reforms are as a footnote. But Gus Hawkins and Byron Rumford, the two black members of the Assembly, presented him with civil rights legislation (banning discrimination in employment and housing) that Hawkins had been carrying since the early ’40s. Their colleague Phil Burton had a bill to create a genuine welfare program. These weren’t Brown’s pet programs, but he supported them and understood that the California Democratic renaissance wasn’t his alone.

The difference between Brown’s situation and his own, Davis could argue, is that Old Pat at least shared a philosophy of government with his fellow Democrats, while he — as he told the Chronicle — does not. But Davis is hardly putting forth an agenda that can rally New Democrats or centrist DLC types, either. The governor has yet to unveil any major experiments, say, in community- or church-based programs that circumvent the traditional role of government. The emerging essence of Davis-ism is simply to reject the ideas of his more liberal (and more conservative) colleagues, and decline to offer programs of his own. This is less the Third Way than No Way; it is centrism as the negation of all other proposals.

It’s not that Davis hasn’t been busy. On Monday, his office announced that he’d raised a mind-boggling $6.1 million in campaign funds, almost entirely from business interests, during his first six months as governor. For an election that’s three and a half years off, the figure is astonishing. By contrast, Tin-Cup Pete Wilson collected a paltry $1.2 million during his first six months as gov. The state may not be booming to the point that Davis is comfortable asking Californians to fund better schools, but it’s apparently doing well enough for him to hit up every rich guy and lobbyist for his own campaign treasury.

Such epic schnorring may provide a partial explanation for Davis’ minimalist approach to governance: Obsessively dialing for dollars, he simply doesn’t have the time to formulate his position on HMOs. Of course, his staffers could prepare policy options — but Davis has been so busy he’s not yet gotten around to appointing much of his administration. Beneath the level of Cabinet secretary and deputy director, many of the key administrative positions remain unfilled — which means they’re still staffed by Pete Wilson holdovers.

But the press of fund-raising is only one reason for the void at the center of the state. Even more paralyzing is Davis’ need to micro-manage, to control every decision of his administration, high and low. The reason that so many jobs are still open is that Davis won’t let his Cabinet secretaries hire their own departmental managers. Worse yet, the governor is deeply distrustful of anyone else exercising power — or judgment. As State Resources Secretary Mary Nichols discovered late last winter, no Cabinet secretary can take a position, or even speak in public, without clearing it in advance with Gray. As we all discovered just last month, the notion of an independent Legislature puts Davis in a lather. At the core of the Sacramento stasis is a control freak devoid of ideas.

During his campaign, Davis, who became chief of staff to Governor Jerry Brown in 1975, said repeatedly that he’d spent 23 years planning how to move the 15 feet into the Governor’s Office. “Now we know he thought long and hard about that journey,” one leading California Democrat says, “and apparently not at all about what to do when he got there. His primary objective seems to be to raise $50 million. But what’s the point of even being governor if your only goal is to raise money?”


A more charitible assessment, surprisingly, comes from Harvey Rosenfield, author of 1988’s auto-insurance-reforming Proposition 103, which Davis supported. With his colleague Ralph Nader, Rosenfield has excoriated Davis for dodging the HMO issue while raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurance companies. But Rosenfield maintains that the gov will yet come around to the cause of patients, and argues that Davis has been left temporarily incapacitated by his November victory.

“We all knew kids in high school who were desperate to buy a car,” Rosenfield says, “who saved up for years in order to buy it. Then they’re afraid to drive it for fear it’ll be dinged. By Gray’s own admission, he clawed his way from the anteroom of the governor’s suite to the main office. Now that he’s there, he wants to leave his governorship in the driveway. He’s afraid to take it out — there’ll be a fender-bender with somebody from a different viewpoint. He just wants to leave that sucker in the driveway.”

Whatever his reasons, the governor is fast becoming a personification of this epoch of political exhaustion. With both left and right fallen silent, with politics stunningly devoid of both energy and ideas, Gray Davis has emerged as the man of the moment — a governing spirit for our spiritless age.

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