Illustration by Juan Alvarado

The survival of Governor Gray Davis will depend on the willingness of progressives — Democrat and otherwise — to vote against the October 7 recall and mobilize others to do the same. This reality is not lost on Davis, who last month performed an about-face on one issue important to many Latinos and liberals. He suddenly asserted that he would sign a bill permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license — only months after opposing such a bill.

This apparent pandering for votes — and Davis’ notorious and incessant huckstering for campaign dollars — is precisely what turned many lefties against him, while also providing fodder for his conservative opponents. But behind everything people dislike about Davis, there’s still a record that, in the view of many, deserves careful review and some respect. To look at that record in detail, from a progressive standpoint, the
Weekly interviewed experts, lobbyists and activists. The ratings below on a range of issues are based on this input.

Criminal Justice

The Record: Poor

The support of one union has added no luster to Davis’ progressive credentials. Members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association enjoyed a 7 percent pay raise this year in the midst of a budget crisis. It was just the latest in a series of extraordinarily good years under this governor.

“The governor’s romance with the correctional officers has been a problem throughout his administration,” said Gerald F. Uelmen, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law. “This has played out in the form of a huge financial burden of building and staffing more and more prisons. And when we tried to change the direction of the criminal-justice system with Proposition 36, Davis didn’t support it.” Voter-approved Prop. 36 allows for the diversion of drug offenders from incarceration to treatment facilities. Despite the program’s promise, said Uelmen, Davis has made no effort to expand drug treatment. “Even a Republican conservative could see the tremendous costs savings of getting people into rehabilitation and out of prison. I don’t see that as a liberal or conservative issue, but a question of economic good sense.”

And “outrageous” is the word Uelmen used to describe Davis’ blanket position against parole for anyone convicted of murder. “Davis ran as a hard-liner on crime, so it’s not as though he’s pulled a fast one on us,” said Uelmen. “On the other hand, he’s carried that into so many arenas.” Davis, for example, blocked statewide rules for enforcing Proposition 215, which legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The result is patchwork compliance. Having as many as 99 marijuana plants is legal in Mendocino, but three is the limit in Tuolomne County.

On the positive side, said Uelmen, Davis has filled judicial vacancies with “excellent, highly qualified” appointments while diversifying the bench with more women and minorities.


The Record: Good

Virtually no one agrees on what true reform in education ought to be, but Davis has indeed focused on his brand of reform. “Gray Davis said that education would be his number-one priority, and it actually has been,” said Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association. Actually, Davis said education would be his first, second and third priorities, but, redundant ordinals aside, Kerr credits Davis in particular for pouring more money into education in good times and maintaining smaller class sizes and limiting the overall damage during the current crisis. Kerr doesn’t hold with Davis’ emphasis on standardized testing, but even that stance, she noted, underscores Davis’ focus on education.

Davis has assertively opposed using taxpayer-financed vouchers to send children to private schools. He’s generally supported charter schools while also backing legislation to rein them in.

Overall, on education, said Kerr, “Gray has kept his word.”


The Record: Good

Environmentalists are grateful for Davis’ support of bond measures to purchase sensitive parklands. And California’s bill to limit greenhouse-gas emissions in automobiles, signed last year, is so trendsetting that much of the industry has mobilized against it. Davis also signed legislation that requires private energy companies to produce an increasing proportion of clean, renewable energy — such as wind or solar power. Energy companies must achieve 20 percent renewable power by 2017.

In addition, Davis has called for legislation to accelerate the recycling of electronic components. A recycling program is needed because plastics in used computers and TVs don’t break down in landfills, and they also leach hazardous chemicals into the environment. The cathode-ray tubes of monitors, for example, contain potentially dangerous amounts of lead, to name just one toxin. ‰

The governor also supported a Sheila Kuehl–authored bill requiring an identified water source before major residential development can go forward. And the Davis administration has protected the coast against both offshore oil drilling and overdevelopment. His appointments to the Coastal Commission are significantly more eco-friendly than those of his Republican predecessors. And last week, he signed a first-in-the-nation ban on a toxic flame retardant found in the finishes of household furniture that can accumulate in mothers and nursing babies.


The downside, said Bill Magavern, a Sierra Club lobbyist, includes his administration’s negotiating of long-term energy contracts that rely almost exclusively on non-renewable forms of energy. Magavern also faults Davis for deregulating the disposal of radioactive waste from decommissioned research facilities, such as the Santa Susana site once used by Rocketdyne. And Davis vetoed legislation that would have banned low-level radioactive waste from standard landfills, which are typically ill-prepared, he said, to deal with the material. Davis also has given in too often, he added, to logging interests eager to clear-cut old timber, and to agribusiness, which has resisted pesticide restrictions. Both industries number among Davis’ campaign contributors.

On balance, however, “California has the best environmental laws in the country,” said Magavern. “Unquestionably the best on global warming and clean air. Near the top in clean water, hazardous waste and toxics. Davis would be up there among the best governors in the country on environmental issues.”

Gay Rights

The Record: Very Good

Like every God- and pollster-fearing politician, Davis opposes calling it “marriage” when two men or two women make a long-term commitment to one another. But he’s at least considering the civil-union bill, sponsored by Jackie Goldberg, which would provide everything the state could offer but the M word. ‰

Never expect Davis to carry a purple banner at a gay-pride parade, but he’s signed real advances into law, such as stronger provisions for reporting and prosecuting hate crimes. He also expanded Medi-Cal coverage to include non-disabled people who test positive for the HIV virus but do not have full-blown AIDS. Another new law permits domestic partners to inherit their partner’s property without a will.

Davis also has appointed nine openly gay or lesbian judges. “During the Deukmejian and Wilson administrations, no gay or lesbian judges were put on the bench, while Jerry Brown appointed one,” said Eric Bauman, an L.A.-based Davis staffer who took a leave to campaign against the recall.

Davis gets top marks from openly gay state Assembly Member Mark Leno (D–San Francisco). “There has been no governor in the history of this state who has done anywhere as much as Governor Davis” for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Health Care

The Record: Improvements
at the Margins

Much like the state budget, the health-care system itself is broken. For starters, 7 million Californians lack health insurance, and 80 percent of those are working people and their families. Many advocates assert that bold, unconventional solutions are called for, like a Canadian-style, single-payer system of universal, government-funded health insurance. Davis is never likely to be so daring. But advocates credit Davis with measurable progress at the margins.

“Gray Davis has improved the system both for consumers and for those who work in the system,” said Beth Capell, a lobbyist for Health Access, a nonprofit coalition that advocates for quality, affordable health care.

First and foremost, Davis signed a raft of HMO reform bills in 1999 that give Californians rights that industry lobbyists have successfully fended off at the federal level. Californians, for example, can sue their HMO, and they also can appeal medical decisions to an independent physicians panel. Davis also has expanded the Healthy Families program, which covers the children of the poor and also would serve their parents, if it is fully funded.

Also on Davis’ watch, California has mandated increased staffing in nursing homes and become the first state to establish nursing ratios in hospitals. “We assume when we go to the hospital that it’s safe,” said Capell, “and it hasn’t necessarily been true. The Davis administration has helped to change that.”

The Davis administration also agreed to budget funds that have lifted the average wage of nursing-home workers, who do most of the hands-on care in nursing homes, from about $7 an hour to more than $9 an hour in L.A. County.

The changes fall well short of revolution. And some advocates have complained that the Davis administration has saved dollars by limiting access to health programs.

If Davis survives the recall, he could have the chance to make health-care history by signing pending legislation mandating that employees provide health-care coverage. But that may be tweaking his centrism too far.

Housing and the Homeless

The Record: Some Progress

Davis supported last year’s Proposition 46, which funds both homeless shelters and the construction of affordable housing. Davis also has signed legislation strengthening tenants’ rights. In 1999, a more prosperous time, Davis more than doubled the state’s housing budget. The problem is that such efforts have fallen well short of the need, which requires something like a statewide housing trust fund paid for with ongoing, vastly increased revenue, said Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing.



Labor/Workplace Issues

The Record: Very Good

Davis’ record here includes reinstating overtime for the eight-hour workday, signing a family medical-leave bill, raising the minimum wage, and extending unemployment insurance and increasing the payments. He also signed legislation providing tax credits for the construction of housing for farm workers and increased funding for the agency that oversees workplace safety.

It’s not that Davis has led the charge on any of these (or on anything else), but quite often, when progressive legislation is put before him, he signs it. In a state with a Legislature that is frequently pushing a labor agenda, Davis’ more passive role is nonetheless crucial, and labor knows it, which is why organized labor intends to mount a massive campaign to keep Davis in office. Its leaders also hope to extract policy concessions from Davis. It remains to be seen, however, whether the union leadership can motivate its members to stand for the governor.

Women’s Reproductive Rights

The Record: Excellent

No mixed emotions on this one for Gayle Tiller of Planned Parenthood. She’s unabashedly pro-Davis. “He gets an A+ on reproductive-health issues,” said Tiller, public-affairs director for the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood affiliate, headquartered in San Jose. During the Davis tenure, California passed legislation affirming abortion rights, which could stand as the law of the land if the closely divided Supreme Court backtracks on Roe v. Wade. Davis also signed laws that allow pharmacists to provide emergency contraceptive medicine without a prescription, that mandate hospitals to offer emergency contraception for rape survivors, and that require medical-residency programs to include training on abortions.

Christopher Lisotta contributed to this article.

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