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Davis Not Making Friends in Bids to Influence People

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Among Californians, Gov. Gray Davis’ approval rating is celestial. In Washington last week, President Clinton welcomed Davis to the White House for a private chat and let him stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom.

For a governor starting his second year, it’s heady stuff. Indeed, many of Davis’ natural allies and longtime supporters say it has gone to his head.

Fellow Democrats in the Legislature are grumbling. So is organized labor, the group most responsible for Davis’ landslide election in 1998. The California Teachers Assn., which spent $1.2 million to help him win election, gave him zero dollars last year, and none so far this year.

The growing anger, most evident among liberals, is only partly over policy differences with the moderate governor. Much of it has to do with what many Democrats see as his imperious style.

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Davis aides cite high poll numbers, and political and policy successes from last year, and say they must be doing something right.

The governor, however, gave new life to the talk of an imperial governorship last week when he said the judges he appoints who later break with him on major issues such as capital punishment ought to resign from the bench.

“Does he think the public wants a king?” an incredulous Democratic senator, a moderate, asked upon hearing of the comments.

“No question, this attitude of ‘me, me, me’ has hurt him enormously,” said an Assembly Democrat.

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Davis, himself a lawyer, issued a statement to explain his remarks on judicial appointments. The statement said he supports the concept of an independent judiciary. But the words he chose when speaking to reporters in Washington left little room for interpretation.

“My appointees should reflect my views,” Davis said. “They are not there to be independent agents. They are there to reflect the sentiments that I expressed during the campaign.”

The comments were seen as part of a recurring theme. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, who scarcely tries to control his irritation with Davis these days, recalled the governor’s statement last year that the Legislature should “implement my vision.”

“He doesn’t support an independent Legislature, so why should he support an independent judiciary?” Burton said. “It’s consistent with his view that the other two branches are irrelevant.”

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Within the administration, top aides know not to steer an independent course, a fact that may have contributed to the departure of several. The most recent to leave was Education Secretary Gary Hart, a former state senator who probably was the most respected member of the Cabinet. Even lower-level appointees hesitate to talk publicly or act on their own initiative for fear of angering the boss.

“Their job is not to think like they think,” the governor has said of his appointees. “Their job is to think like I think.”

Davis, ever the cautious politician, is practiced at paying heed to polls that gauge public opinion on various issues. He strives to push policies that appeal to the vast middle of California’s electorate.

But after 16 years of Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, organized labor, trial lawyers and others who provide some of the Democrats’ most loyal support expect more from a governor of their party who has strong majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

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Davis spokesmen answer critics by citing his first-year successes--signing gun control, health care and labor legislation, and boosting school spending. Crime is down and the economy is strong.

They also can cite the polls. The latest Times poll shows Davis with an astonishingly high 67% approval rating, up from 54% in June. Even 55% of Republican voters say his performance is solid.

“The fundamental issue is whether the job is getting done for the people of California,” said Davis spokesman Phil Trounstine. “Part of the reason the Legislature and governor are enjoying record approval ratings is that they’ve done a terrific job on critical issues. That’s what really matters--not this sort of ‘inside the cul-de-sac’ echo chamber.”

Davis has been a fixture in Democratic circles for nearly three decades. But he has never struck up close friendships with other politicians.

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“Everybody acknowledges his political prowess,” said a Democratic lawmaker who has known the governor for 25 years. “But there are no deep-rooted relations--or even shallow-rooted relations.”

Underscoring Davis’ arms-length relationships with other politicians, the legislator cited the governor’s mishandling of the appointment of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to the board that oversees the $170-billion California Public Employee Retirement System. Legislators scoff at Davis aides who attributed the debacle to a series of terrible mistakes.

Embarrassing Gaffe Over Brown

In January, the governor’s office sent Brown a letter congratulating him on his appointment to the CalPERS board. Brown replied with a letter thanking Davis for the appointment, and took the oath of office.

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In February, however, Davis’ aides said the governor’s letter had been signed by “auto-pen” and mistakenly mailed by an unnamed staffer. Davis, they said, had not made a final decision.

After offering no public explanation for several days, the governor ultimately placed Brown on the board, but not before he had angered and embarrassed the mayor.

Although some lawmakers question the wisdom of Davis’ decision to appoint Brown, they say his handling of it was worse. It was seen as disrespectful to the longest-serving Assembly speaker in California history, the man who presided over the lower house when Davis served there and who was among the most prominent politicians to endorse the governor’s candidacy early in the 1998 campaign when Davis was struggling.

“If he does that to Willie Brown, what would he do to the rest of us?” the Democratic lawmaker wondered.

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Judging from Davis’ fund-raising success, his support among donors remains strong. In his first year as governor, he raised a record $13.2 million, and he enters 2000 with more than $14 million in his campaign account. That kingly sum would give any would-be challenger pause.

But his campaign finance reports contain a notable omission: The California Teachers Assn., among the largest benefactors of Davis’ 1998 campaign, has given him no money since he took office.

“Our members are really unhappy with Gray Davis,” said John Hein, chief lobbyist for the union. “They thought he would be a champion for teachers and schools. Instead, they see him as a guy who wants to direct everything from the top.”

The union and Davis have split over the central issue of education funding.

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The teachers are considering placing an initiative on the November ballot that would require the state to push school spending to the national average. Davis believes that the price tag, up to $6 billion annually, would require a tax increase, and opposes it.

Not unaware of his image as a martinet, Davis sometimes pokes fun at himself, appearing on stage at the end of last year’s legislative session with an eyesight chart containing the letters V-E-T-O. Legislators and staffers laughed.

But for many, the joke is wearing thin.

The governor does not have to face voters until 2002, however.

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He has plenty of time to soften hard feelings among organized labor and legislative Democrats, if he wants.

“In politics, nothing is irreparable,” Hein said. “But some things are extraordinarily difficult. I would say we are approaching ‘extraordinarily difficult.’ ”


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