Gray Davis

Former California Gov. Gray Davis, right, talks with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at the mayor's inauguration ceremony. (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times / June 30, 2013)

For political roadkill, Gray Davis sounds awfully chipper these days.

After decades spent in methodical, often joyless pursuit of higher office, the man who won the governor's office in 1998 was ousted in a recall election that was equal parts carnival and runaway train.

He has the distinction of being only the second governor in U.S. history tossed from office midterm. More painful still, Davis' ouster came less than a year after he had scraped his way to reelection.

Regrets? "Obviously, I wanted to complete my second term," Davis said with characteristic reserve, each word carefully weighed. "I'd like to think I could have gotten some positive things done those last three years."

Ensconced at a venerable Los Angeles law firm, the ex-governor would rather discuss the accomplishments of his four-plus years in office: measures advancing gay rights, the fight against global warming, stem cell research, high-speed rail, student testing and teacher accountability.

"A lot of these things I was able to do led the way for America and are still resonating today," Davis said.

The Democrat's work at the Loeb & Loeb law firm centers on technology and the entertainment industry, familiar turf for Davis, who years ago represented Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles in the state Assembly. Davis, also a former lieutenant governor and state controller, still keeps a hand in public policy through membership on several advisory panels.

Ten years on, his golf game is much improved — Davis and his wife, Sharon, are regulars at the Hillcrest Country Club — though not nearly what it was back in college, when he played on the Stanford golf team and boasted a two handicap. Technically, his game has improved, Davis said, but at age 70 he doesn't have the strength to drive the ball as far.

Speaking from his Century City law office, Davis studiously avoided criticism of his successor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who eventually fell to the same wretched poll standing that Davis once endured.

As for his 2003 ouster, Davis was matter-of-fact. The recall process that led to his departure has been a part of California government for more than 100 years. In fact, every modern governor, including Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, has faced recall attempts of varying seriousness. (There was even talk of driving Schwarzenegger out of office, though it never got far.)

"Everyone who runs for office in this state is aware of those provisions," Davis said. "Those are the rules of the road. If you don't want to play those rules, politics is not the right profession for you."

He declined, when asked, to assess the merits of the extraordinary election that forced his abrupt exit.

"Historians will be the best judge," he said. "I'm not sure enough time has passed for us to know what the full effects of the recall are, or to what extent California is better or worse."

mark.barabak@latimes.com