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Missing Children Issue Gives Him a Cause Nobody Can Knock : Gray Davis Works on an Image--His Own

Times Political Writer

Gray Davis, “the man who put Jerry Brown in a blue Plymouth,” is known in California politics as a master of media and image. The image he is working on these days is his own, and he has something that politicians dream about--a cause no one can knock.

Davis, a Democratic assemblyman who represents Beverly Hills and parts of the San Fernando Valley, is spending almost all of his time helping find missing children.

He gets their pictures put on paper bags, milk cartons and billboards. He consoles frantic parents, he gets calls at home from law enforcement agencies when they find a missing child. He holds press conferences from San Francisco to San Diego. He shows a slick film about his involvement in the issue at his big annual fund-raiser.

Even as the Gray Davis skeptics wonder what he is up to, the testimonials pour in:

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“I hadn’t seen my son in 3 1/2 years,” said Shari Lyles, a young California mother whose son was found recently after Davis got the child’s picture put on milk cartons and grocery bags. “We had gone through the police--nothing. We hired private detectives--nothing. But Mr. Davis got Justin’s picture all over the place, and one day his schoolteacher saw it on her milk carton and called the police.” The boy had been abducted by his grandmother.

Al Marasca, executive vice president of Ralphs Supermarkets, said: “The idea (to put missing children’s pictures on grocery bags) belongs to Gray Davis. . . . His network is very impressive. He can put you in contact with the right people.”

And from Bob Feenstra of the Milk Producers’ Council: “Gray Davis is the most persistent gentleman I have ever met in my life. The milk producers (dairymen) needed some persuading to give up the advertising space on these cartons. He (Davis) called them personally. He told them of the benefits to the kids and to (the image of) the milk industry.”

Fellow politicians, most of whom assume that Davis wants to be governor someday, marvel at his ability to seize an issue.

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“Gray has always had the knack for sensing the public mood and knowing when an issue is ripe,” says Tom Houston, former chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission and now deputy mayor of Los Angeles.

State Sen. Ed Davis (no relation to Gray), the conservative Republican from Valencia, says: “This is one of those rare major issues that doesn’t have a downside. I mean, usually you have somebody on the other side.”

A former aide to Gray Davis, who requested anonymity, said: “This (missing children) was made for Gray. I can’t believe how it meshes. It satisfies his need for do-good projects--and I think that’s genuine with him--and at the same time it gets him the kind of publicity that boosts his political career.”

Davis, 42, who entered the Assembly in 1983, wouldn’t mind a boost. Friends and aides say privately that he still hasn’t adjusted to being one of 80 Assembly members after helping to run the state for six years as Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s chief of staff.

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It was Davis who helped shape the Brown mystique that served the governor so well in his early years--before Brown began to be viewed as too eccentric. It was Davis’ decision--soon after Brown was elected in 1974--to get rid of the governor’s limousine and have Brown driven around by the state police in a plain blue Plymouth.

And Davis helped parlay Brown’s quirks--sleeping on a mattress on the floor, shunning the governor’s mansion for a small apartment near the Capitol--into high popularity ratings in the governor’s first term and the national recognition that led Brown to jump into the 1976 presidential race.

By all accounts, the adjustment from playing those political games to carrying Assembly bills on asbestos removal has been as about as easy as it sounds.

“Almost none of Gray’s bills were meaningful in the first term,” said an aide who requested anonymity. “At the end of his freshman term he called the staff together and said, ‘I want to have some good legislation that we develop, not stuff carried by the third house (special interest lobbyists).’

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“At the same time, Gray is always looking for ways to solve problems without introducing bills. He can do this because with Jerry he learned where the levers of power are. He knows systems. He knows who you need to call.”

The missing children issue--a very modern problem that usually involves runaways and parents who abduct their children during custody fights--turned out to be one in which it was helpful to know whom to call. Davis recalled in a recent interview how he got involved.

“I saw the movie ‘Adam’ in 1984 and I wondered at the time how we could build on the success of the roll-call idea, you know where they run the missing kids’ pictures at the end of the show.

“But then I forgot about it until last Christmas when Sharon (Davis’ wife) and I were in Florida and I saw an item in the paper. It was about how a milk company in Wisconsin put the pictures of two missing boys in Iowa on their milk cartons for two months. It hit me. This is what we can do in California. I called my staff and told them to get me some numbers. I called a dairy lobbyist I knew in Sacramento and asked him to have some meetings set up when I got back in January.”

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Almost Obsessive

Davis, who once talked about nothing but politics and mass media, now talks passionately, almost obsessively, about missing children and the ordeals of the families.

“Sixty-five children go missing every day--every day,” he said in the interview. "(The parents) become totally consumed in the efforts to find their children. Your friends, your bank account, your job--all normal functions suffer until that child is returned. . . . I think we have enhanced law enforcement’s ability to find these kids. . . . We are somebody else for the parents to talk to.”

Those who know Davis well say he has mellowed in recent years and they give most of the credit to his wife, Sharon, whom he married right after he entered the Assembly in 1983. Sharon Davis revealed in a recent interview that the couple plan to have children of their own soon.

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One Davis friend--who recalls Davis’ outbursts of temper and demands on staff members in the Brown Administration--said that a 1984 operation to remove a growth from the back of his eye forced Davis to slow down and appreciate something other than politics and golf--a game he plays extremely well and often uses to conduct business. Davis said that the growth was benign and that he has completely recovered from the operation.

Still, the ambition is there. Until recently, Davis’ name was nowhere to be found on the paper bags and milk cartons bearing the faces of the missing children.

But Davis now has persuaded Gannett Outdoor Co. to donate space on hundreds of its billboards along Southern California highways. There is a picture of the missing child on the billboard, some vital statistics and a toll-free number to call. And right in the middle, in very large letters, are the words “Assemblyman Gray Davis.”


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