Davis Says Circumstances Beat Him, Hints of Return

Times Staff Writers

After five years in office, Gray Davis leaves the Capitol today on an ignominious note, the only California governor ever recalled by voters. But far from being chastened, the 60-year-old Democrat has surprised longtime associates with a reaction that some characterize as deep denial of his fate.

He has hinted at a political comeback -- sometimes in a joking fashion, at other times seriously -- noting that his removal from office so early in his second term means he still could serve another term as governor, said people close to Davis, all speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The historic humiliation he has suffered might have shamed other public figures into shunning the spotlight and slinking into oblivion. Davis has prosecuted his final weeks with a high-profile flourish, winning praise from adversaries for his gracious dealings with incoming governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and for his energetic response to the Southern California wildfires. With a touch of macabre humor, aides have referred to the final flurry of activity as the governor's "I'm Not Dead Yet Tour."

In part, Davis' reaction to his fate -- a response that even some close aides consider slightly surreal -- is driven by his personal analysis of the recall. In two interviews with The Times, and in other comments to reporters, Davis has depicted his downfall not as a personal repudiation, but as the result of a political storm set in motion by the California electricity crisis in 2001 and whipped into even greater intensity by a bad economy that has damaged the popularity of governors and mayors across the country.

"You know, this last election just wasn't in the cards," said Davis, calmly dissecting his defeat. "I don't think there's anything we could have done differently against the opponent we had, other than -- not just in the campaign but years ago -- had a more aggressive communications strategy with voters. I think that would have led to a reservoir of goodwill that would have stood me in better stead once these external events happened."

Davis has begun preparing for a return to private life. He and his wife, Sharon, recently paid a visit to California Highway Patrol headquarters, for example. There, each took a lesson from the experts in a souped-up Ford Crown Victoria, reacquainting themselves with driving in the real world -- something Davis hasn't had to do since the early 1980s, aides said.

And whether motivated by thoughts of a political comeback, the judgment of history or a recall-inspired recognition of his shortcomings as governor, Davis has reached out to some former adversaries.

He has written warm notes to lawmakers -- and frequent critics, like Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) -- praising their work and legislative achievements.

In an interview, Davis lavished praised on Burton. "I've had some wonderful conversations with him the last 30 days," said Davis. "For all his bravado and bluster, he's a remarkable human being and has been responsible for some very substantial achievements which I've been pleased to sign into law."

Over the last five years, Davis and Burton were at odds almost constantly. In the interview, however, Davis said: "I think John would agree the legislative achievements the two of us worked on were extraordinary."

"But just because I like and respect him, I would have preferred to have a better personal relationship," he said. "I wished I had developed a stronger relationship with him, and I hope I can in the years to come."

The loss of what he has described as his dream job has clearly saddened Davis. When asked about leaving office this week -- during a ceremony naming the governor's office suite after former Gov. Pat Brown -- he fought back tears.

Still, his wife insists he is doing fine, weighing job options, saying goodbyes and looking ahead to life as an ordinary citizen.

"People seem to think we're running around with our heads held low, crying in our soup," Sharon Davis said in an interview. "That's not the case. This isn't the outcome we wanted, but Gray is a task-oriented person, and he's busy setting up his new life."

And both in public and in private conversations with longtime advisors, Davis has rejected the widely held view that the recall was a repudiation of his leadership and personal style as governor.

Davis' advisors -- speaking on the condition of anonymity out of a desire to spare their former boss such a public repudiation -- have offered much more critical assessments of Davis' failed governorship in long, emotional conversations.

Some say Davis should forget about a comeback.

He should "get over whatever kind of denial he might be in, accept some responsibility for what happened and realize his political career has run its course," said one associate.

"He ought to take this chastening to heart, and he ought to take his considerable intelligence and experience and do something that will turn around the way people will view him over time."

On the other hand, some political strategists who have opposed Davis in the past say they can envision Davis' name on a ballot again, although perhaps for an office other than governor.

Republican consultant Dan Schnur, for one, said Davis could some day win a congressional seat in a heavily Democratic district, where angry loyalists might feel that he had been unfairly deposed.

"Politics is what he's done his whole life," Schnur said in raising the possibility of a Davis rebirth. "I don't think he can just flip a switch and turn it off."

Precedents for political comebacks exist, of course. Lynn Frasier of North Dakota, the only other American governor recalled from office, ran for the U.S. Senate the year after his defeat, won, and went on to serve three terms. Former presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter both rehabilitated badly damaged reputations after leaving office, although neither ran for an elective job again.

For his part, Davis has dealt with questions about a comeback with a politician's trademark equivocation, saying, "I'm not ruling anything out."

What will be Davis' new life after 21 years in elective office remains a mystery. Asked about his future recently, Davis replied, "I still don't have a clue." He has a law degree, but has never really practiced law. Most likely, he'll work for a foundation or start his own, perhaps on the education issues that were the hallmark of his administration.

Davis also is considering a book, his wife said, perhaps about his experiences or the nature of politics today. And in the short term, she added, the soon-to-be-former first couple will travel and "think things through in a very calm setting."

Many other ex-politicians either have focused on rehabilitating tattered images or on making money to supplement their pensions, which in Davis' case is roughly $105,000 a year.

Garry South, Davis' former political advisor, noting that Davis has been widely known as one of the most prolific fund-raisers that politics ever produced, said the outgoing governor could put that skill to use on behalf of a nonprofit group.

"Someone with 100% name identification in the largest state in America, who has been in public life here for 30 years and governor for five years, still has a fair amount of prominence, whatever the circumstances of his exit," said South. "If he sets his mind to it, he could do a lot of enormously useful things outside of politics."

Regardless of what Davis chooses to do, however, the change will be abrupt for him, said South, who has worked for other politicians who have made the transition.

"It's not like all of this tapers off," he said. "One day you have it all, and the next day it's all gone in a flash."

After witnessing Schwarzenegger's swearing-in today, Davis and his wife will climb aboard a Southwest Airlines plane, fly home to Los Angeles and begin contemplating in earnest what went wrong in his 1,778-day reign as governor.

"It's like the golden carriage turning into a pumpkin at midnight," said South.

"For someone who has spent his entire adulthood in public life, it is a very rude awakening."

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