CALL IT THE BATTLE FOR GRAY DAVIS' SOUL. United Farm Workers' co-founder Dolores Huerta turned up the heat at a Capitol rally marking the end of the UFW's 10-day march up the Central Valley to draw attention to the governor's reluctance to sign landmark legislation providing binding arbitration for farm workers.

“When Gray signed Cesar Chavez Day, he gave me a copy of the bill with a note calling me his 'conscience.' Now we'll learn if he hears his conscience.” The 72-year-old Huerta, who nearly died of an aneurysm last year, told the Weekly she plans to fast if Davis refuses to sign the bill in the next week or so, a chilling prospect for her health — and for Davis' image.

Davis missed the rally. He was on his way to Fresno to tout his state advertising program for California agriculture and to attend a dinner honoring retiring state Senator Jim Costa, the only Democrat to vote against the farm labor bill. “I got angrier with every step of the march that the farm workers had to do all this with a Democratic governor,” said the bill's author, Senate President John Burton (D­San Francisco). “We're going to give him the opportunity to prove the Republicans liars, that he's not a 'pay-for-play' governor, that this march and what it represents is worth more than the million dollars he's taken from the growers.”

Backstage, a legislator circulated photos of Davis with ex­Republican Governor Pete Wilson, whose political fortunes could be Davis'. Like Wilson, he could be handily re-elected but widely disrespected. His legendary feud with Burton, which he should act to mend, is only part of the problem. Dozens of legislators marched with the farm workers, developing a camaraderie that could bode ill for Davis if he vetoes the bill.

It may not be surprising that dozens of Hollywood stars, including Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, and Martin Sheen wrote an open letter to Davis urging him to sign the bill. But big Democratic business patrons like Northern California development kingpin Angelo Tsakopoulos, who helped pay for the Capitol rally, are getting in on the act, too. Tsakopoulos, who held a fund-raiser for Davis last year and just gave him $100,000, told the Weekly: “He must understand that field work is so desperately hard. They need this bill.”

BY SUNDAY NIGHT, IT WAS CLEAR THAT DAVIS aides were feeling the heat from the UFW's moves and that rethinking of the governor's plan to veto the bill was underway. Even last week the Governor's Office was sending signals of compromise. The Weekly was asked to come by to see a year-old letter from UFW president Rodriguez thanking Davis for vetoing the union's top priority of 2000, which targeted abusive farm labor contractors, because it made for a stronger bill in 2001. With the pertinent lines underlined and an arrow placed next to them, the Weekly was told to “view this in the context of the Burton bill.” But the UFW leadership proved not to be impressed by the notion of a veto this year and an amended bill next year. Nor was a famous Democrat of Davis' long acquaintance. “That's bullshit. He should sign the bill now.”

Two political mentors and allies most responsible for the rise of Gray Davis also are pushing him to sign the bill. One is former Governor Jerry Brown, for whom Davis served as chief of staff. The other is L.A. Congressman Howard Berman, who endorsed Davis in 1982 when he ran for Berman's old Assembly seat in Beverly Hills.

Berman and Brown joined forces to create California's landmark Farm Labor Act in 1975, with Brown insisting on its passage as governor and Berman serving as its legislative author.

“After a time,” says Berman, “the growers figured out how to manipulate the law and the union's fortunes waned. And without a Democratic governor, there was no way to amend the legislation. Growers can live with this, just as they've lived with the end of child labor, the short-handled hoe, and indiscriminate pesticide spraying. The UFW is as practical as it is idealistic. They have no desire to put growers out of business.”

Berman, as shrewd a practical politician as any around, agrees with other political experts that it makes more sense for Davis to sign the Burton bill than to veto it. As one Democratic analyst puts it: “Now he needs goodwill more than money, because he will have all the money he needs.”

In the words of a Davis adviser: “It should be an interesting week.”

LA Weekly