Gray turns green -- with cash

Building more prisons, doling out pork and refusing to rethink the death penalty, California Gov. Gray Davis is confounding friends and enemies with his relentless pursuit of the middle.

By Anthony York

Published June 9, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Early May is deadline time in the California governor's office, when policy wonks and number crunchers tally the revenue from the year's taxes and huddle to revise their January budget predictions. It's a process known as the May Revise.

But this year, with the state flush with cash, Gov. Gray Davis huddled not with his numbers guys but with his political advisors -- communications director Phil Trounstine, former campaign manager Garry South and pollster Paul Maslin. Together, they hatched a plan to eliminate $545 million in state income taxes for public-school teachers. When Davis unveiled the plan, it dominated state headlines and landed the governor on Page 1 of the Sunday New York Times.

Earlier this week, after the fanfare died down, the bipartisan legislative budget conference committee voted unanimously to kill the teacher tax cut.

Depending on which Sacramento insider is telling the story, this is a reason to despise or admire Gov. Gray Davis, the former Jerry Brown chief of staff who is now on many people's shortlist to be Al Gore's running mate. But whether it's told with loathing or admiration, the story gets across the essential Gray Davis, a consummate and masterful politician surrounded by a team adept at grabbing headlines, who lets the Legislature do his dirty work for him.

"Clearly he wants to attract and retain qualified teachers," Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg said in a statement after Davis unveiled his teacher tax cut. "But his proposal takes state tax policy into uncharted waters. If we do this for teachers, how do we treat other professionals working for the public good?"

"This is the essence of Gray Davis," said one former advisor to Davis' Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson. "Hatch a proposal that has zero chance of passing, but is going to get you on the front page. And now, everywhere he goes, he's introduced as the guy who doesn't want teachers to pay taxes."

Stories of cold political calculation are the trademark of Davis' first 18 months in office. He touts a solid list of accomplishments: implementing school accountability programs; creating an achievement test all public high school students must pass before graduating; giving patients limited rights to sue their HMOs; and extending the state's gun control laws. But most stories about him attempt to analyze his methods and motivations. Although the stiff Davis would appear to have little in common with back-slapping President Clinton, Davis' foes in both parties -- and some admirers -- say he's inherited Clinton's gift for triangulation.

Trounstine says that's unfair. "Gov. Davis doesn't triangulate to find the middle. That is who he is," Trounstine said. "That may be the effect, but that's not the intent. Does he have passionate positions that are outside the mainstream? Not that I can think of. But that's because he happens to be a mainstream human being."

There is a certain consistency to Trounstine's logic. In 1998, Davis ran as a political insider. He had served as Gov. Jerry Brown's terrestrial other half during Brown's early years as governor, and had a solid political risumi as an assemblyman, state controller and lieutenant governor. He positioned himself as the buttoned-down, centrist alternative to a pair of self-financed millionaire challengers, Al Checchi and Jane Harman, in the primary, and conservative Republican attorney general Dan Lungren in the fall.

Davis' eventual 20-point victory was the ultimate triumph of all things status quo and ordinary, the true triumph of gray. Davis likes to joke that he spent 25 years in government trying to move 25 feet (from the chief of staff's office to the governor's office). He ran as the tortoise, not vowing to dramatically change politics. Politics had changed to fit him.

Davis is not shy about being an aggressive fundraiser, and has not relented in his pursuit of campaign dollars since taking office. Reports from the secretary of state's office indicate that Davis had more than $14 million in the bank at the end of 1999. Fundraisers are a regular part of Davis' weekly schedule. On Wednesday, as the Legislature worked out final details of a budget plan to send to the governor, Davis spent part of the day at a $5,000-per-head golfing fundraiser at Pebble Beach, sponsored by the prison guards union.

"He says, 'I've seen that movie before, when a blue-collar Democrat has to go up against multimillionaires,'" Trounstine says of his boss. "We all saw it with Checchi and Harman. But I don't believe anyone, despite any innuendo, can demonstrate a policy outcome that's been driven by fundraising."

But the appearance of a quid pro quo on behalf of campaign contributors, for example, has led to consistent criticism of the Davis administration. Last year, Davis broke with Democratic Party orthodoxy and placed money for a new $335 million state prison in the state budget, which his opponents blasted as a windfall for the powerful prison guards union, which spent more than $2 million to help elect Davis in 1998.

In April, Davis released a $5.3 billion congestion-relief plan which gave the governor more direct control over state transportation projects -- and presumably more power to dole out pork. "Normally, that money goes into a special fund -- the transportation commission sets the priorities for all projects, and the money is given out on an as-needed basis," said state Sen. Ray Hayes, R-Riverside. "Whenever state money is handed out, politics is always going to be involved, but before, it was at least one step removed. This plan is all about Gray Davis being able to hand out pork."

One of the projects that has received the most criticism is a $30 million freeway interchange that leads directly to the casino owned by the Morongo Indians. The Morongos are one of the state's largest gaming tribes, and have donated $1.7 million to political candidates in California from 1995 to 1998, according to a new report released by the watchdog group Common Cause. The Morongos participated in a political action committee that spent more than half a million dollars on Davis' behalf during the 1998 election.

"He says it's congestion relief, but it's more like contributor relief," said Republican state Sen. Ray Haynes. "It always helps to be a contributor to Gray Davis, and Gray Davis makes it well known that it always helps to be a contributor."

Trounstine rejected Haynes' criticisms out of hand. "The [Department of Transportation] analysis is that on weekends, that freeway is heavily congested. Thank God nobody's been killed out there. But I think it would be wrong to argue the governor put this in the budget as a payback to the Morongo Indians."

He said the change in transportation funding was not made to give Davis more pork power, but to kick-start projects that often get bogged down in local government bureaucracy. "He took the bull by the horns and said, 'Let's make it happen.' I wouldn't say it's more centralization, just command decision making."

The combination of his Election Day mandate and current campaign war chest has helped make Davis immensely powerful. And Davis has proven willing to use that power to reward and punish as he sees fit. While he may not be the world's most electric politician, any perceived dullness should not be mistaken for lack of ambition or subtlety. Davis once told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Legislature should respect the 20-point victory California voters gave him in 1998.

"Their job is to implement my vision. That is their job," he said. Earlier this year, Davis got into some trouble when he gave the same advice to judicial appointees. "My appointees should reflect my views. They are not there to be independent agents." Davis later retracted his remarks on the judges.

But Davis is keenly aware that the success of his administration will not be determined by winning some Sacramento popularity contest. "That's just all inside-the-cul-de-sac carping," said Trounstine. "Nobody out in the real world cares about that stuff. The question is, 'How is he doing as governor, and is California moving forward? Are we on the right track or the wrong track?' And most people will tell you we're doing pretty well."

Whether by design or coincidence, Davis has been able to use members of his own party as a foil. Davis' chief rival in Sacramento has not been a Republican, but a fellow Democrat. Senate leader John Burton, the state's most powerful legislator, is also one of its most liberal, and Davis seems to relish playing off of Burton to make himself seem moderate.

Burton recently refused to hold a hearing on the reappointment of James Nielsen to the state parole board, after a federal judge's ruling that the board violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge sided with plaintiffs who said some prisoners in wheelchairs were forced to crawl up stairs to get to their hearings and that prisoners who used sign language had their hands shackled.

An angry Davis blasted off a statement. "Victims rights groups and law enforcement fully supported Sen. Nielsen's confirmation." Davis later skirted Burton's maneuver by appointing Nielsen to a similar, temporary position that did not require Senate confirmation.

The fact that Davis did not cave in to Burton is hardly surprising, especially on a crime-related issue. Davis has staked out a tough-on-crime position, leading the New York Times, in yet another front-page profile, to dub him "more of a conservative on criminal justice issues than his Republican predecessors, or any other elected official in California -- if not the nation." To that end, Davis, who is Catholic, even refused the pleas of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who asked the governor last month to impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

More often than not, when Davis is receiving criticism in Sacramento, it comes from members of his own party. Republicans, who are in the vast minority in both legislative houses, have largely clung to the path of least resistance, claiming pleasant surprise at Davis' middle-of-the-road style of governance. Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte once exulted Davis as "carrying out Pete Wilson's third term."

There is no question that Davis was not everything some Democrats hoped he would be after 16 years of Republican rule in the Statehouse. He has been diligent about imposing moderation. The only four-syllable word he likes better, or says more often, is education. Moderation and education were the two things he talked about on the stump in 1998. It was those two things, Davis has argued, that Californians demanded when they sent him to Sacramento with a 20-point victory. So when liberals hem and haw, for example, that Davis hasn't moved fast enough to overturn California's anti-affirmative-action initiative, Proposition 209, Davis points to the polls.

Davis has also taken a centrist course on a number of ambitious reform measures. When the Legislature passed an ambitious package of bills giving patients the right to sue their HMOs, Davis demanded a number of changes before autographing the bills. And after unions, nursing homes and advocates all agreed on a plan to reform nursing-home care in California, Davis vetoed the bill unexpectedly.

Davis strategist Garry South told the L.A. Weekly's Harold Meyerson that Davis was simply "saving the Democrats from themselves." The more cynical voices around Sacramento maintain that Davis is motivated by a desire to keep issues in play, in part to control the headlines, but also to keep moneyed interests happy in Sacramento, and to keep them giving political donations.

Democrats say their problem with Davis is not as much ideological as it is one of style. One Democratic assemblyman, who requested anonymity, described Davis' politics as "completely void of any ideology or logic. It's not moderation, it's more like 'one for me, one for you.'" When asked why he didn't want to give his comments for attribution, the assemblyman said, "The governor and I have had our tough moments, but it's a relationship we're working on now."

Indeed, disloyalty is not looked upon kindly by Davis. The governor's first director of the Department of Transportation, Jose Medina, lost his job after criticizing Davis in print. True, Medina was clearly in way over his head. The former San Francisco supervisor had little experience in dealing with transportation issues, and many thought his appointment was simply a favor to an early backer, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. But blasting Davis in print seemed to be the last straw.

Davis is also known to be intensely loyal to his supporters. When he was elected governor, Davis gave key jobs to staffers who rode out Davis' years in relative obscurity as state controller and lieutenant governor, back when he was still the punch line to many a joke in the halls of the state Capitol.

But none of these internal squabbles seem to affect the national media's perception of Davis. He has proven deft at landing himself in the pages of the New York Times, and Time magazine famously dubbed him "the most fearless governor in America." While the line may still be met with guffaws around Sacramento, a sterling national portrait has helped put Davis' name into the mix as Al Gore tries to decide on a running mate.

"You know," joked one Democrat who has had a number of proposals shot down by the governor, "'Vice President Gray Davis' has kind of a nice ring to it."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

California Education