Davis Concedes Mistakes but Fights ‘Power Grab’

Times Staff Writers

Alternately contrite and defiant in his most direct response to the attempt to remove him from office, Gov. Gray Davis on Tuesday asked Californians to help him stop a “right-wing power grab” that he said would do “lasting damage to our state, our environment and the very fabric of our democracy.”

“This recall is bigger than California,” Davis told a live television audience and hundreds of supporters at UCLA. “What’s happening here is part of an ongoing national effort to steal elections that Republicans cannot win.”

For the first time, Davis conceded that he had made mistakes on major issues -- being too slow to respond to the energy crisis and not tough enough in controlling state spending when the treasury was flush.

“We made our share of mistakes. And like you, I wish I had known then all I know now,” he said.

But while he referred to his errors in the 19-minute speech, Davis quickly asserted that the state’s crises had many causes -- from a flagging national economy and greedy energy barons to uncompromising Republican legislators and an inattentive federal government.


Davis’ opponents derided his attempt to cast himself as a victim of circumstance and a Republican recall plot.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo called the conspiracy theory “just not true.”

“The Republicans did not fix the polls that showed he was at 22%" approval, Camejo said.

And Bill Simon Jr., who lost to Davis last year and is now running again, said the governor did anything but take responsibility, as he promised he would at the start of the speech.

“What we heard was, ‘It’s somebody else’s fault. It’s a conspiracy. It’s President Bush. It’s the national economy,’ ” Simon said. “It’s everything but Gray Davis himself.”

Political observers said the combination of humility and feistiness in Davis’ speech was designed to win back disaffected Democrats. The party remains dominant in California, and Davis strategists have said they believe the argument that the recall is a case of partisan politics run wild can be effective for them. Focus groups have shown that Democrats might be willing to vote against the recall if Davis acknowledged some failures, political analysts said.

But the audience for the speech appeared to emphasize Davis’ isolation in the party. As he made the speech that his aides have touted as key to his effort to restore his flagging support, few prominent Democrats were on hand.

Aside from the governor, the most recognizable Democrat in attendance was Henry Cisneros, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton. Many members of the audience, who were invited by Davis’ campaign, were from labor unions and environmental groups.

Another prominent Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante -- who says he is running a “No on the Recall, Yes on Bustamante” campaign -- declined to comment on Davis’ speech.

A notoriously wooden speaker, Davis was true to his usual form during the speech. Yet he appeared relaxed at times -- even laughing as one man in the audience derided opponent Arnold Schwarzenegger -- and received considerable applause from the partisan crowd.

The speech was heavily tailored to appeal to Democratic constituencies -- with references to a long list of party priorities, from abortion rights to workers’ compensation.

Davis also tried to assure Californians that not all had gone wrong during his tenure. He noted that public school test scores have improved for five years. He said the state is now 26th among the states in per-pupil spending, compared with 43rd when he took office. And he claimed a record for cleaning up the air and water and protecting the Pacific Coast.

Above all, Davis appealed to his party by saying he had been targeted by Republicans who were frustrated that they could not defeat him in last November’s regular election.

Davis received the loudest response when he said the recall followed a GOP pattern. Republicans began by leading the impeachment charge against President Clinton, continued by blocking a recount of Florida’s presidential votes in 2000 and again sought unfair advantage with e redistricting attempts in Colorado and Texas, Davis said.

The speech began with Davis appearing with his wife, Sharon, on the stage of the Ackerman Ballroom at UCLA’s Student Union just after 5 p.m. -- in time for evening newscasts. He appeared calm as he launched almost immediately into a speech he said would be “to take responsibility, to set the record straight and to talk about the future.”

He spoke first about the state’s $38-billion budget gap and the crisis that in his first term threatened power outages and had the state buying electricity at hugely inflated prices.

On both issues, the governor went further than he has in the past toward accepting responsibility. But he also depicted events that he said made the twin crises hard to avoid.

Davis said he would accept the public’s assessment that he had been “slow to act on the energy crisis.”

But he said Californians had been “victims of a massive fraud” by electricity producers, some of whom, he said, “are on their way to jail.”

He added that California has avoided blackouts like the one that swept much of the Northeast and Midwest on Friday.

“In California,” Davis said, “not a single light has gone out in the last two years.”

On the budget, Davis conceded: “Yes, I could have been tougher in holding down spending when we had big surpluses.” But he said most of that money went to education and health care.

The recent budget compromise was the best that could have been hoped for, he said, especially with a nationwide economic slump and Republican legislators “who would not compromise and who wanted to strip away health insurance benefits from 400,000 children of working parents rather than increase taxes on the wealthiest Californians.”

He promised in coming weeks to appoint a “distinguished commission of knowledgeable people” to propose long-term solutions to California’s recurring budget problems.

The governor spoke most passionately when he addressed the recall directly. He said the $65-million cost of the special election would be better spent on public schools.

He called the recall “expensive, undemocratic and a bad precedent.”

“It almost certainly will breed more recalls,” he said.

As the crowd chanted, “No recall! No recall!” Davis responded with a somewhat awkward pumping of his arms. But he broke his usually stoic veneer for a least a few moments.

When a member of the audience shouted, “Pump this, Arnold!” Davis broke into a wide grin, then a laugh and said: “I don’t know how to follow that.”

Then someone else in the crowd yelled, “Three more years!”

After most of the cameras had turned off, a dozen or so angry Davis supporters surrounded Duf Sundheim, the state Republican Party chairman, as he tried to give television interviews from the back of the hall.

“No recall!” they screamed repeatedly, drowning out Sundheim’s attempts to respond. Many of the hecklers carried bright red fliers made up by the state Building and Construction Trades Council, depicting Pete Wilson’s head on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body.

“I’m Back!” the signs read in English on one side and Spanish on the other, warning that Schwarzenegger was backed by Wilson and listing positions the former governor took that the union considered harmful to its members.

Davis campaign staffers said they had encouraged their supporters to approach Sundheim.

In the audience, Mary Leigh Blek, president emeritus of the Million Mom March against gun violence, said she felt the governor had met one of his goals, speaking with true conviction.

“This man has heart,” said Blek, who lives in Laguna Hills. “I thought Gray Davis showed his heart to Californians.”


Times staff writers Sue Fox, Peter Hong and Martha Groves contributed to this report.