Davis Embraces Wilson’s Tactics

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It’s fitting that when Gray Davis flew to Los Angeles on Friday to cut the ribbon on the Alameda Corridor, he came to celebrate the opening of a project initiated under his predecessor in the governor’s office, Pete Wilson.

The two dour career politicians share more than a penchant for basking in the glow of a successful big-money project during a reelection campaign--the corridor for Davis, the quake-damaged Santa Monica Freeway in 1994 for Wilson. Davis has wholeheartedly embraced the Wilson political playbook.

The parallels go beyond the bland centrist personas of the two governors and say a lot about California’s surprisingly staid political culture.


Both are ex-military-men-turned-politicians, humbled by devastating defeats who have gone on to become champion fund-raisers, unpopular with their own party activists and in the polls, but remarkably difficult to beat.

Wilson ran for reelection in 1994 amid an economic downturn with sagging poll numbers--the same spot Davis finds himself in today. Both men launched preemptive attacks against their challengers before the general elections began.

Wilson faced the scion of one political dynasty whom he painted as an extremist, the same tack Davis is taking with Republican Bill Simon Jr., son of a well-known Nixon Treasury secretary.

Wilson used the death penalty to paint challenger Kathleen Brown as being out of touch with Californians; Davis is using abortion against Simon. Wilson’s razor-sharp consultants, as with Davis, were the envy of the political world. Davis’ brash chief political strategist, Garry South, has cited Wilson several times in describing the current governor’s strategy.

“It tells you a lot about what the political system rewards,” said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. “It rewards highly disciplined candidates who are not very spontaneous and who are not very charismatic or brilliant, but are shrewd, cautious and well-managed.”

There are certainly differences between the two men and their campaigns. While Wilson launched preemptive strikes against his challenger in 1994, they were not as relentless as Davis’ campaign against former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in this year’s GOP primary. The $10-million Davis onslaught knocked Riordan out of the running and set up a general election contest against the more conservative Simon.


And while Wilson was a proficient fund-raiser, Davis is in a league of his own, according to most observers. Indeed, Wilson began his reelection campaign $2 million in debt, while Davis has more than $27 million in the bank.

George Gorton, who managed Wilson’s 1994 reelection campaign, cautioned against drawing too close parallels, saying that Davis may find the comparison useful. “It’s a clever spin: Pete Wilson came from 23 points behind, and we can too,” Gorton said.

Still, observers say the comparisons are valid.

“Apart from a couple of issues, there’s not a radical difference between Gray Davis and Pete Wilson,” said Jack Pitney, a former GOP official who is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Both of them are very tough politicians who run close to the center.”

Wilson was pro-abortion rights and pro-gun control, like Davis. Davis is a vocal proponent of the death penalty and relatively cautious fiscally, like his predecessor. Those stances have created tensions for both governors with the more activist wings of their parties.

Both men have decades of experience in California politics. Wilson served in the state Legislature and as mayor of San Diego. A loss in the 1978 governor’s race did not deter him--Wilson became a U.S. senator before winning the governor’s office in 1990.

Davis served as former Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff before becoming an assemblyman, state controller and lieutenant governor. He lost the Democratic senatorial primary to Dianne Feinstein in 1992, but continued to push his way up the electoral ladder.


“They have both had the same career path,” veteran Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick said. “They have tremendous fund-raising skills, the ability to put together a very broad coalition of economic interests behind their candidacies and use it to very aggressively define how the opposition is viewed.”

Carrick ran Feinstein’s 1990 race for governor, in which she was defeated by Wilson. He recalled that Wilson emerged from the GOP primary low on cash, but swiftly began to pound the former San Francisco mayor, alleging she favored quotas. Four years later he trailed Kathleen Brown in the polls but went after her on the death penalty and illegal immigration. Wilson won reelection in a landslide.

Now Davis is hammering Simon on his support of abortion and opposition to gun control.

“It is the Wilson game plan,” Carrick said. “It’s a very tough, emotional issue that’s difficult to counteract if perception is you’re on a different side of the issue.”

For all their campaign fireworks, neither man is known for his personality. Davis, like Wilson, has a talent for relentlessly sticking to the message--one that was on display Friday, when he joined dozens of other politicians to celebrate the opening of the $2.4-billion Alameda Corridor rail line. “The old saying that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan has never been more true than it is today,” Davis said in his speech. At a news appearance a few minutes later, Davis virtually repeated the speech.

The cautious centrist persona of Davis and Wilson--and to a lesser extent that of the man who preceded them in the governor’s office, George Deukmejian--is the key to electoral success in massive California, where candidates rely almost entirely on paid advertising to sway voters rather than personal contact, Cain said.

Institutional elements reinforce the centrism. California’s governmental system, with its array of commissions and propositions demanding certain spending and preventing others, tends to limit the powers of governors, said Pitney of Claremont McKenna. “There really isn’t much room for a governor of California to make a radical policy change,” he said.


Add to that residents’ traditional distaste for state politics, and you have a recipe for dull elected officials, Pitney said.

The moral of the Wilson-Davis parallels, according to Pitney? “California’s a lot more boring than people think.”