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Davis’ Job Rating Falls to All-Time Low of 27%

Times Staff Writer

As the state has sunk into fiscal crisis, Gov. Gray Davis’ popularity has dropped to the lowest level of his governorship, with just 27% of Californians approving of his job performance and 64% disapproving, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Yet California voters, who reelected Davis four months ago, oppose the budding effort to recall him from office, the poll found.

The survey paints a bleak picture of Californians worried about the stalled economy and angry at Davis over the state budget morass. They expect taxes to rise and public programs to be cut -- although they find few options acceptable -- and they blame the Democratic governor more than anyone for the pain ahead.

“I think he’s done a lousy job,” said Sam Battersby of Chino, an independent who summed up an opinion shared by many of the 1,300 poll respondents. “I just think you’d almost have to be derelict in your duty to allow this to happen.”

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The breadth of ill will toward Davis is striking. A majority of nearly every bloc of Californians gives him negative job ratings: men and women; Democrats, Republicans and independents; conservatives, moderates and liberals.

Among Republicans, Davis is extremely unpopular; nine out of 10 disapprove of his job performance.

But even core supporters have soured on him. About 54% of his fellow Democrats rate him unfavorably. Most blacks and Latinos also give him bad job ratings. Even union members -- a key constituency for a governor with deep ties to organized labor -- disapprove of Davis’ job performance, 69% to 21%, the poll found.

The No. 1 reason that Californians give for their disapproval of Davis is the state budget shortfall, which the governor pegs at nearly $35 billion over the next 16 months. He has proposed $8 billion in tax increases and more than twice that in cuts.

“The state is a financial wreck,” said San Diego Republican Al Ludwig, 62, a semiretired telecommunications engineer. “As governor, I think he’s responsible.”

Ludwig worries about the prospect of teacher layoffs in San Diego, and fears that the lack of state money will ultimately harm local police and fire services.

“These are the things we’re supposed to have to protect California citizens, and I lay it all on his doorstep,” he said. “I think it all comes to the energy thing.”

Indeed, the California energy crisis endures as a source of popular bitterness toward Davis. After the budget problems, it is the reason cited most often by poll respondents for their disapproval of the governor.

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“I think he sold us out,” said construction worker Melvin Collie, 46, a Los Angeles Democrat.

Armed with mounting evidence that Enron and other power traders used sham transactions to jack up prices during the energy crisis, Davis is leading the state’s pursuit of billions of dollars in refunds.

Yet the poll found that 61% of Californians still do not consider Davis to be a decisive leader, a perception that has dogged him since his handling of the energy debacle first drove down his popularity ratings two years ago.

On education, his signature issue, more than two out of three Californians give Davis low marks, and he fares almost as poorly on his stewardship of the economy. Californians also harbor doubts about his integrity, the poll found.

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“I constantly have the feeling that he’s beholden to special-interest groups,” said San Francisco Democrat Markley Morris, 69, a retired technical writer. “That seems to infect our whole political system, but he seems to be one sad example of it.”

Yet for all the grousing, voters are skeptical of the recall effort launched last month by Davis opponents: By 51% to 39%, they oppose a special election to unseat the governor.

“He was elected by a majority of the people to do the job, and I haven’t seen anything that’s been that drastic since the election to warrant his being recalled at this point,” said retired police officer Martin Horan, 58, a Yuba City Democrat.

When those who initially favored the recall were told that it could cost taxpayers about $25 million, roughly one in four said they no longer would support it.

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“It’s a waste of time and a waste of money,” said Battersby, 62, who solicits business for a truck-hauling company.

Republican Ed Grubbe of Bishop, a construction consultant, said recalls should be reserved for cases of criminal wrongdoing, a standard Davis does not meet.

“If someone was really totally administering something to the point that it was fraudulent, I would say, yeah, recall him,” he said.

Most voters said they had not closely followed news about the recall attempt. The survey found 44% believe that it stems from Davis’ mismanagement of the state, as the recall’s proponents contend, but 36% dismiss it as a Republican attempt to overturn the November election. Ten percent see it as a mix of both.

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Recall organizers must get nearly 900,000 petition signatures within 160 days to qualify for a special election. The secretary of state’s office has rejected their first proposed petition, but they are expected to submit a revised one this week.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling Director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,300 adults, including 1,055 registered voters, from Feb. 27 through March 3. The statewide survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll found pervasive gloom among Californians. Only 24% say things in the state are moving in the right direction while 68% say things are “seriously off on the wrong track.” The dim outlook is shared across the political spectrum, with most liberals, moderates and conservatives saying the state is heading the wrong way.

Most Californians say the economy is doing badly, and most still see the state in a recession. Most expect the economy to remain the same or get worse over the next six months.

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The grim mood is similar to the circumstances faced by Davis’ Republican predecessor, former Gov. Pete Wilson, during the recession of the early 1990s. In an October 1992 Times poll, his approval rating bottomed at 28% -- a statistically negligible notch above Davis’ in the new survey. Wilson recovered in time for his reelection two years later.

Term limits bar Davis, 60, from running again for reelection, but the poll suggests that he needs major rehabilitation to be a viable contender for another public office.

Still, Davis is not the only target of public wrath. The poll found that just 32% of Californians approve of the way the perennially unpopular Legislature is handling its job.

The Legislature scored even worse on the state budget: Just 17% of Californians approve and 56% disapprove.

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In assigning blame for the state’s fiscal problems, Californians rank Davis as the main cause, followed by the energy crisis, the economic slowdown and the Legislature.

As for solutions, the poll found Californians as flummoxed as the lawmakers who are scrambling to stave off the inevitable public hardship.

More than half agreed that Davis “should not rule out anything” to balance the budget, “even if it means raising taxes”; 57% favor a combination of raising taxes and reducing spending; 73% say it is unrealistic to expect no tax increase.

Yet when it comes to deciding which taxes to raise, there is little enthusiasm for the main options under consideration in Sacramento. Well under half of Californians support a new tax on Internet purchases, a 1% increase in the corporate income tax, a 1% increase in the sales tax, or a new tax on auto repairs, legal work and other services.

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Californians are most adamantly against raising car-registration fees: Only 15% say it is a good or excellent idea.

“I don’t think that’s where you fix the problem,” said high school teacher Evelyne Capilouto of Orange, a Democrat who suspects that her household -- with three grown children living at home -- could be hit with “hundreds and hundreds of dollars” in higher fees. “There’s five of us in this house, and we all drive. We drive to school. We drive to work. We have to have these vehicles.”

Tuition increases at the University of California and California State University systems are another unpopular option.

Californians are lukewarm on the governor’s proposal to raise taxes on the rich: 48% call it a good or excellent idea.

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The most popular source of new revenue, according to the poll, is Davis’ proposal to tack a $1.10 tax on every pack of cigarettes. Though that would generate little more than $1 billion, two of out of three Californians say it is a good or excellent idea.

“As a nonsmoker, it just seems like a reasonable way to increase revenue,” said Daniel McNeil, 34, a community college sociology instructor from Grover Beach who is a Green Party member. The exorbitant cost of cigarettes, he added, “might have a nice public-health benefit as well: People may stop smoking as much.”

On the spending side, respondents show little willingness to cut, especially when it comes to schools. Just 6% favor the governor’s proposal to slice $5 billion in school spending over the next 16 months, with 83% opposed. Californians name education as the most important issue facing the state, followed by the budget crisis and the economy.

Collie, the Los Angeles construction worker, said it would be tragic to yank support from overcrowded schools that already lack money for basic supplies and maintenance.

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Barbara de Cordova, a Marin County Democrat, said: “We’ve got kids who are trying to find books, school buildings that are falling apart. It’s just horrible.”

Barely a third of Californians support cuts in prison spending. Even less popular is Davis’ plan to save money by shifting state foster care and other social services to counties.

Though the poll’s findings are roundly negative for Davis, California’s other top elected officials do not fare as poorly.

The poll found Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to be a bit more popular than Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif). Half of Californians approve of Feinstein’s job performance while a quarter disapprove. For Boxer, 43% say they approve of her work, while 25% disapprove and nearly one-third are undecided.

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More encouraging for Boxer, who is up for reelection next year, was the finding that 47% of registered voters are apt to vote for her while 30% favor her yet-to-be-named Republican foe.

For the Republicans considering a run against Boxer, the poll essentially measured name recognition. Among registered Republicans, 29% favor former GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon, 13% choose Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista), 7% pick Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) and 6% support Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa). Forty-three percent of Republicans say they are undecided.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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California poll: Davis and the budget

Q: Are things in California generally going in the right direction or are they seriously off on the wrong track?

Right direction

May 1991: 31%

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Today: 24%

Wrong direction

May 1991: 59%

Today: 68%

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Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Gov. Gray Davis is handling...

His job

Approve: 27%

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Disapprove: 64%

The energy situation

Approve: 29%

Disapprove: 56%

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The state’s economy

Approve: 22%

Disapprove: 63%

Public school education

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Approve: 20%

Disapprove: 67%

The state’s budget

Approve: 17%

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Disapprove: 69%

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Q: Has Davis shown decisive leadership while serving as governor?

Today

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Yes: 29%

No: 61%

Don’t know: 10%

10/02

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Yes: 48%

No: 39%

Don’t know: 13%

2/02

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Yes: 44%

No: 49%

Don’t know: 7%

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Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Legislature is handling ...

It’s job

Approve: 32%

Disapprove: 37%

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The budget

Approve: 17%

Disapprove: 56%

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Q: Agree or disagree: Davis should not rule out anything in trying to make up for the record budget shortfall, even if it means raising taxes.

Agree: 51%

Disagree: 42%

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Q: Republicans in the Legislature said they would not pass the state budget if it included any tax increases. Do you think not including any tax increases in the budget is realistic or not?

Unrealistic: 73%

Realistic: 20%

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Q: Is each of the following proposals an excellent, good, fair or poor way to reduce the budget shortfall? (ranked in descending order by aggregate positive responses).

Raise cigarette tax by $1.10 per pack

Excellent: 42%

Good: 24%

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Fair: 12%

Poor: 21%

Raise income tax rates on top earners

Excellent: 24%

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Good: 24%

Fair: 23%

Poor: 26%

Collect sales tax on Internet purchases

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Excellent: 16%

Good: 27%

Fair: 20%

Poor: 34%

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Raise corporate income tax rate by 1%

Excellent: 17%

Good: 25%

Fair: 27%

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Poor: 28%

Cut spending on prisons

Excellent: 13%

Good: 22%

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Fair: 26%

Poor: 34%

Raise sales tax rate by 1%

Excellent: 7%

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Good: 19%

Fair: 34%

Poor: 39%

Shift some social programs to counties

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Excellent: 4%

Good: 18%

Fair: 23%

Poor: 51%

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Start collecting sales tax on services

Excellent: 5%

Good: 16%

Fair: 31%

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Poor: 45%

Raise community college fees

Excellent: 5%

Good: 11%

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Fair: 22%

Poor: 61%

Raise vehicle license fees

Excellent: 4%

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Good: 11%

Fair: 25%

Poor: 59%

Raise public university fees

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Excellent: 2%

Good: 7%

Fair: 20%

Poor: 69%

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Cut spending on K-12 schools

Excellent: 2%

Good: 4%

Fair: 10%

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Poor: 83%

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Note: Results shown are among all California adults. Numbers may not total 100% where don t know responses are not shown.

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How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll contacted 1,300 adults statewide, including 1,055 registered voters, by telephone Feb. 27-March 3. The margin of sampling error for registered voters and for the overall state sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Telephone numbers were selected from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques allowed both listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

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Times poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll

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Times Poll Associate Director Jill Darling Richardson and data management supervisor Claudia Vaughn contributed to this report.


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