Highlighting the twin challenges of better schools and race relations, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis ceremonially kicked off his campaign for governor Thursday at an urban, ethnically mixed school here in the state's Democratic stronghold.
Davis issued a plan for improving California's sagging school system with ideas such as teacher evaluations and testing that are unpopular with some of the most influential education groups that traditionally sponsor Democrats.
But in San Francisco and later Thursday on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, Davis appealed to the traditional liberal core of the Democratic Party with a message that strength comes from diversity.
"Our great state faces some particularly daunting challenges," said Davis, who was introduced in San Francisco with a strong endorsement from the city's mayor, Willie Brown. "First, whether we can successfully educate our children for the new economy--and society--of the 21st century. And second, whether we can unite in common purpose our increasingly diverse people."
Davis has been working in recent years to prepare himself for this governor's campaign. He was the first Democrat early last year to announce that he would enter the race.
But as he launched his bid Thursday with a ritual event that traditionally highlights the themes unique to each candidate's effort, Davis finds himself considered an underdog by many in his party.
That's largely because his two Democratic opponents--former Northwest Airlines chief Al Checchi and Torrance Rep. Jane Harman--are multimillionaires who are funding their own campaigns.
Both Harman and Checchi are spending around $1 million per week to broadcast television commercials. Davis said he hopes to start radio ads next week but will probably not be able to afford television commercials until mid-April.
For now, though, he is still the best known of the three major Democrats running for governor.
His 25-year career in politics began shortly after he returned as an Army captain from Vietnam. He worked in former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's first campaign in 1973. Later he served as chief of staff under the state's last Democratic governor, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.
Davis has run four statewide campaigns for three offices--controller (winning two terms), U.S. senator (losing a primary race in 1992) and lieutenant governor, winning in 1994.
Now, Davis said he hopes that voters will consider his lengthy government resume as a better credential for the next governor than his two rivals can offer. At the same time, he spoke candidly about the challenge of running against such wealthy opponents.
"I am a realist who is acutely aware of the vast personal resources that are arrayed against me in this campaign," he said. "But I know two things: First, your vote is not for sale. And second, I offer the voters a wealth of experience that money can't buy."
Davis warned of ominous implications for the state if it appears that candidates cannot compete without being millionaires. And he cast himself as the determined survivor who stayed in the race even while other Democrats considered and then rejected the idea of competing against wealthy opponents.
"I have been preparing for this job for most of my adult life, and I make no apologies about that," Davis said. "No candidate in this race is better trained to be governor--and I intend to be governor."
The education plan Davis unveiled Thursday includes several ideas that have been endorsed by other candidates, such as expanding the number of charter schools in the state and flunking grade school students who don't pass a new set of achievement tests.
Many state leaders have supported Davis' idea of teacher evaluations and testing for promotion and demotion decisions. Davis told his friends in the teacher unions that have long supported him that he would require more from all segments of the education community.
"I am telling them, 'You know in my heart that I am your friend, but, collectively, we simply have to produce a better product,' " he said in an interview. "I am going to demand that everyone do more."
Davis has the same message for parents. He would require all parents to sign contracts stating that they will help their children with homework and participate in school meetings.
Among the other items in his education plan, Davis would:
* Allow state authorities to intervene and even take over the administration of local schools that fail to meet minimum academic performance standards.
Now, state takeovers are permitted in cases of bankruptcies. But Davis would also give state education officials the authority to dictate curriculum and other decisions--even teacher hiring and firing--for schools that fall behind a minimum performance standard.
* Require schools to increase their spending on textbooks by about $600 million per year--a jump of about 75% over current levels.
* Order school districts to create a position of chief executive officer. The CEO would be responsible for an annual report on the school's academic performance.
* Offer more training and incentives to college students who want to become teachers. He would also expand training programs for teachers and offer financial rewards to prevent some teachers from leaving.
* Expand alternative schools for students who are disciplined for selling drugs, carrying weapons on campus or assaulting teachers.
Like his fellow Democratic candidates, Davis is also opposed to an initiative on the June ballot that would end bilingual education in California schools. But the issue is a politically sensitive one because the ballot measure has demonstrated more than 2-1 support in public opinion polls.
Davis did not mention his opposition to the initiative in his comments Thursday. And the omission sparked a brief confrontation afterward with an angry parent.
"He is afraid to take a stand!" Maria Elena-Cortez shouted at Davis campaign staffers. "We are a bilingual school, and this is a perfect place to do it!"