As more key supporters hedged their bets against his possible defeat in the Oct. 7 recall election, Gov. Gray Davis on Tuesday continued his efforts to refurbish his image with a vigorous defense of his record in the second of a planned series of town hall-style meetings around California.
Davis faced sometimes tough and pointed questioning about his job performance from several members of the audience at the KPIX-TV (Channel 5) studios in San Francisco.
Echoing his speech at UCLA last week, he acknowledged some failings and expressed some regrets over his decisions of the past four years, but insisted any mistakes he had made didn’t warrant his recall.
“I have plenty of regrets,” Davis said. “But you know leadership is being positive and optimistic and always seeing the glass half full. Even if you have doubts you can’t convey those doubts because you can’t lead.”
Davis added, “I regret deeply that people are out of work. I feel very badly about that. I don’t think I caused it, but I know that I get the blame because I’m the leader. I regret deeply that people are paying more for electricity now than they were three or four years ago. But we had a lot of obstacles. I won’t run through those again, but at least our lights have stayed on.
“I regret that in some cases, bills I signed didn’t turn out as well as I thought they would. But at the time I thought I was doing the right thing. But it didn’t work as well. But as a leader, I can’t just say I’m full of doubt and regret. Then no one will rally behind you when you say we have to go in this direction.”
Davis went on to say: “If I knew then what I know now, I would have acted quicker” in response to the electricity crisis in 2001. But he said he had delayed action because of his reluctance to pass on sharply higher electricity rates to California consumers.
“I knew instinctively that was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what to do,” Davis said.
Davis also continued to insist that he wasn’t guilty of mismanaging state finances and didn’t lie about the severity of the state’s fiscal woes.
“They said I lied about the budget,” he said. “You can’t lie about a deficit. Where do you put a deficit -- in a drawer?”
The audience burst into laughter.
Still, Davis seemed exasperated at one point by suggestions that he had caused the state’s financial crisis, saying that he had vetoed $9.4 billion in spending proposed by the Democratic-dominated Legislature.
Pressed further, he finally said: “I take responsibility. Just blame me. Blame me. I’m captain of the ship.”
During the forum, Davis was asked about the perception that political expediency had prompted him to change his position on the financial privacy legislation and other controversial bills.
“I don’t think it’s a fair criticism,” he said.
In the case of the financial privacy bill, Davis said long negotiations were needed to agree on amendments that would balance the needs of consumers against those of businesses.
Davis once again pledged to sign a bill that would give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. He vetoed similar legislation last year after citing security concerns raised by the bill. He cited two reasons for signing the bill when it reaches his desk this year: Immigrants do work that other people won’t do and many already drive without valid licenses.
Davis once again praised Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante -- the leading Democratic candidate to replace him -- but stopped short of urging Democrats to support a strategy that many party members are already adopting: voting ‘no’ on the recall and ‘yes’ for Bustamante should the governor be recalled.
Davis said he wouldn’t announce his position on the second part of the ballot until about 10 days before the election.
Davis was asked once again about the extent to which his aloof personality had contributed to his troubles.
“If you’re asking me if I’m Bill Clinton, no, I’m not,” said Davis. “I grew up in the ‘50s when they taught you to keep your feelings to yourself. At the end of the day, I think what people really care about is, did you do the job for them, did you keep your promises.”