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In Liberal Oakland, Davis Scarcely Outshines Simon

Times Staff Writer

Ask Mary Ann Boddum about the race for California governor and she goes on at length about Bill Simon Jr.: his inconsistent stands on issues, his questionable business practices, lack of personal integrity and bumbling campaign. “I just don’t think he’s suited for the job,” Boddum said of the GOP gubernatorial nominee.

She is scarcely more impressed with the Democratic incumbent, Gray Davis. He kowtows to big business, Boddum said, panders to contributors and has not been the friend to education that he promised to be. “Also, I think he plays a little dirty sometimes in his campaigning,” Boddum said.

In this overwhelmingly Democratic area, what’s a party loyalist to do?

The question brought Boddum up short. If her support were needed to keep Simon from office, the 55-year-old Berkeley mom finally said, she would reluctantly vote to reelect Davis. Instead, she may skip that line on her ballot. Or perhaps back one of the lesser-known candidates, such as the Green Party’s Peter Camejo. “My son keeps pressing me to vote my conscience,” she said.

Four years ago, California Democrats exulted at the prospect of electing Davis and ending 16 years of Republican rule in Sacramento. Now, with Davis a favorite to win reelection on Nov. 5, many Democrats view the prospect with something akin to resignation, frustration, even outright hostility.

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“Slimy” and “super slimy” was how Kevin Christison, 33, an Oakland sculptor, described Davis and Simon. “Tweedledum” and “Tweedledee,” echoed Herb Lotter, 62, during a recent break from a volunteer shift at Alta Bates Hospital.

The cynical shorthand ignores vast differences -- in experience, philosophy and, not least, on issues -- that separate Davis from his GOP rival. Even so, the statements reflect a widespread discontent in Democratic ranks, particularly on the left, that could hurt the rest of the party ticket even if Davis prevails. (Polls show that Simon is facing just as many partisan defections as -- or more than -- Davis, which helps explain why the governor’s race is not closer.)

“It’s unlikely that one-third of the Democratic vote will go to Simon,” said Darry Sragow, a strategist for Democrats in the Assembly. “The concern is that a significant chunk will decide to stay home and just not turn out.”

In part, Davis suffers from a malaise that seems to be hurting incumbents all over the country, regardless of their records. “We have an electorate that is uniformly discouraged, depressed, disgusted,” said Sragow, citing words he has heard repeatedly in countless focus group interviews over the last year. “Folks see a bad economy, a bad stock market, corporate scandals, a church scandal, terrorism, the threat of war in Iraq. It’s pretty tough for an elected official to shine in that environment.”

Beyond that, however, Davis has estranged many fellow Democrats by, in short, not seeming Democratic enough.

Throughout his term the governor has hewed carefully to the middle ground, courting business interests, shunning broad-based tax hikes and taking an uncompromising stance on law-and-order issues. The broad center is where statewide elections are usually decided in California, so Davis’ course has left him well positioned for reelection. But, taken with his bland persona, Davis’ centrist straddle has done little to excite hard-core Democrats. “It’s always been half a loaf,” said a consultant, Bill Carrick, who is running races for several of the down-ballot Democratic candidates.

More recently, as his reelection effort stepped up, Davis has signed measures with explicit appeal to the party’s base of environmentalists, women, gays and -- foremost -- organized labor. But even then, critics say, his actions have often seemed fainthearted and grudging at best.

“He doesn’t feel like a Democrat,” said Larry Tramutola, an Oakland-based campaign strategist. “His personality and his incessant fund-raising and his seeming willingness to sell out progressive Democrats make it appear the guy has no values at all. Even though he may champion Democratic causes, the activists think he’s insincere.”

Or as Larry Waidhofer put it: “Gray Davis seems pretty much like a Republican, beholden to corporate interests.”

The 39-year-old waiter was standing in front of the Sierra Club bookstore on Oakland’s College Avenue, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee from a shop run by two neighborhood food mavens. The java was a political statement, his stand against the onslaught of Starbucks’ franchised brew. “Gray Davis is no friend of classic Democrats,” said Waidhofer, who will probably cast a protest ballot for the Green Party. “If Bill Simon beat Gray Davis, there would not be much of a difference, except a few judgeships here and there.”

College Avenue, which runs from Oakland to Berkeley, offers a funky melange of upscale galleries, juice bars, consignment shops and gourmet burrito stands. At its crowded sidewalk cafes, lunching ladies with designer handbags sit alongside scruffy bohemian wannabes and students from the nearby University of California campus.

Urban and affluent, this area showed its Democratic affinity in the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore carried the local congressional district with 79% of the vote. Republican George W. Bush’s 12% put him barely ahead of the Green Party’s Ralph Nader, who received 9%.

But it is not just any Democrat who wins favor. Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland famously cast the lone “no” vote in Congress against war in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and, here at least, became a folk hero.

A poll that Tramutola conducted for former Assemblyman Tom Bates, running in the hotly contested race for Berkeley mayor, also tested the popularity of other figures. It found an 83% positive view of Lee, compared with 42% for Davis. While candidate Bates is happy to draw attention to his support from the Green Party and groups like the Sierra Club, “any mention of [Davis] would kill a candidate,” Tramutola said.

That view is obviously extreme; elsewhere, the governor would undoubtedly be happy to advertise his rejection by the city’s leftist electorate, with its loony reputation.

Besides, there are plenty of Democrats who enthusiastically support Davis. One of them is Enid Hunkeler, who appreciates his support for abortion rights and gun control even as she acknowledges that Davis is “not the most outgoing, charismatic personality.”

Because of that, Hunkeler went on, “people don’t understand how committed he is to those fundamental social goals.”

The 58-year-old medical researcher, glasses pushed back on her head, scolded wayward Democrats by summoning memories of the 2000 presidential campaign and the Nader vote that, some analysts say, undercut Gore and helped put Bush in the White House. She asked, “Do you really want to waste your vote again and risk bringing someone to office who’s not only right-wing but proven himself politically incompetent?”

For their part, strategists for the Davis campaign and the state Democratic Party profess not to worry about a mass exodus of loyalists on election day, or even a significant decline in turnout. They anticipate placing more than 1 million phone calls and sending out more than 4 million pieces of campaign literature to Democratic households over the next two weeks, exhorting party faithful to the polls. “We have a far more extensive get-out-the-vote and end game than we did in 1998" when Davis won his first term in a landslide, said Garry South, the governor’s chief campaign strategist.

Many Democrats seem to share that confidence -- which, in an odd way, may actually work to Davis’ detriment. Consider Lucy Bunch.

The 45-year-old university administrator had driven from Sacramento to meet a friend for lunch on College Avenue. As she stood at a parking meter fiddling with quarters, the Democrat expressed her disappointment with Davis over the last 3 1/2 years.

“I wish there was an alternative,” she said. “I think everything in his life is about raising money and getting elected. I don’t think he has any principled construct. He doesn’t seem to have any vision for the state that he can articulate.”

Supporting Simon would be unthinkable, however, so Bunch is contemplating a vote for the Green Party’s Camejo -- “as a statement” -- or she may simply ignore the governor’s race when she casts her ballot Nov. 5.

“California deserves better,” Bunch said, as the sun struggled to peek through the late-morning fog. “It’s really sad.”

Bunch was convinced that Davis would win a second term, and win handily.

But “if I thought there was a chance Bill Simon would be elected,” she said, “I would rush to the polls to vote for Gray Davis.”


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