Davis Is Battling Image of Aloofness

Times Staff Writer

The audience was Latino, and the topic was illegal immigrants.

Gov. Gray Davis, perched stiffly on a TV studio stool like a schoolboy in a spelling bee, recited his lines in a thin, reedy monotone.

Illegal immigrants are indispensable to California’s economy, he began. But then he seemed to forget his audience.

“We need immigrants to pick our food and put it on our tables,” he said as the audience -- middle-class Latinos, primarily -- shifted uncomfortably. “We need immigrants to clean our hotels and office buildings and take care of the elderly.”


And: “That work is important.... Whether people are janitors or maids or busboys or cooks, it’s all part of the experience we enjoy when we’re at a restaurant or a hotel.”

If any of the Latinos in the studios of the Spanish-language station Univision felt patronized, they didn’t say so. But the governor’s words landed with a dull thud Monday night, creating one of many awkward moments as he fought for his political life in the final week of the recall campaign.

Gray Davis is a man running against himself -- against his image as aloof, cautious, condescending and emotionally stunted. Even as he broke with past practice and plunged into staged encounters with those he calls “real people,” he battled his own rigid personality and wooden syntax.

The governor has said his survival hinges on taking his case directly to the people. But during three days of public appearances, often the strongest response was indifference to a politician who has never seemed comfortable in his own skin.

As hard as Davis tried to be personable and approachable, his body language betrayed him. In his dark suits and blue ties, with his narrow jaw set and his helmet of white hair at attention, he stood ramrod straight, arms at his sides.

Most politicians wave or wink or grin at voters in campaign crowds. Davis stares at a point somewhere in the middle distance.

Part of the problem is that he is not technically a candidate. He’s the governor. He’s trying to rally support for a negative -- a “no” vote on recall.

To his credit, Davis plunged into one public event after another, gamely offering reasons -- framed by issues and policies, not personality -- for voters to save his job. He was contrite and chastened, acknowledging that he had strayed too far from the concerns of ordinary people.


“I’m honored to be able to speak directly to Californians and to hear their questions, whether they’re tough questions, or whether people are angry -- and I know many are,” Davis told the Latino studio audience.

And far more than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor addressed issues, even if his dry recitation of facts and legislation tended to anesthetize listeners.

No Makeover

At this desperate juncture, some politicians -- Al Gore comes to mind -- would order up a personality makeover. Not this governor. All week, he stayed true to the essential Davis -- and that just may be his downfall.


Davis is burdened by what pollsters call “high negatives.” Voters tell pollsters that they just don’t like the guy, though they can’t quite articulate their gut antipathy, except to say that he somehow screwed up the budget or the economy or the electricity crisis.

In a rare burst of spontaneity, Davis has tried to make light of his image. At an appearance with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, he was asked whether his tough TV ads meant that he had abandoned attempts to present himself as more engaging and less distant.

“What are you talking about?” he said -- and suddenly lurched at Richardson, wrapping him in a stiff hug. “I’m cuddling and doing my best to be kinder.”

Richardson’s startled look made it obvious that the last thing he had expected from Davis was a touchy-feely love fest.


Voters don’t seem to know what to make of this enigmatic man, this career politician and public servant who has yet to learn how to engage the people who twice elected him to the state’s highest office.

At the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, Davis descended upon unsuspecting diners trying to wolf down their lunches. After shaking the governor’s hand and receiving a brisk “Good to see you,” one woman was asked what she thought of Davis. She shrugged and said, “Nice suit!”

Davis may operate in a charisma-free zone, but he is an intelligent and disciplined politician. He is famously well-drilled on the issues. He is rarely caught off guard by a question. He can rattle off health-care and job statistics and provide detailed accounts of how legislation passed or how his policies were formed. He stays on message, even when circumstances demand an unscripted approach.

As each new poll showed the recall effort gaining ground, Davis doggedly pounded away at Schwarzenegger. His campaign had concluded that the best way to fend off the recall was to present the actor as dangerously inexperienced and not up to the job.


At each stop, Davis repeated the same scripted lines designed to ridicule Schwarzenegger for ducking the governor’s repeated challenge to debate him.

“I weigh 165 pounds,” he told a gathering of union members. “I never competed in the Mr. Universe contest. And guess who’s running away? Mr. Schwarzenegger is running from me.”

The line got a good laugh from the union members, but it didn’t prevent Davis from inadvertently calming a crowd that had greeted him with war whoops and chants of “No recall!” He tried to join them in rhythmic clapping, but he was half a beat off. He tried a power salute, but his arm shot only halfway up and sort of hung there. The governor launched into a speech, and the energy drained from the crowd.

Some of Davis’ political allies say it’s unfair to ask such a private man to be a dynamic speaker and a lusty backslapper.


“He’s being punished for being a policy wonk and sitting down and concentrating on his job and not being just another politician,” said state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). “The governor is a modest person. But give him credit. He’s trying to engage the regular, common folk.”

Is it working?

“Well, he’s developing a comfort level I haven’t seen before,” Cedillo said. “But he’s always going to be that same methodical, disciplined man. That’s who he is, and he won’t change that.”

Peter Ragone, communications director for the Davis campaign, swears that the governor loves his new press-the-flesh approach. The Univision event was his 10th town hall meeting since the recall question got on the ballot.


“It’s funny -- he said to me unsolicited the other day: ‘I love doing these,’ ” Ragone said. “I had never heard that before. That was him talking from the heart.”

Why didn’t Davis reach out to voters before he was hauled before the recall tribunal?

“Hindsight is 20-20. This has been a learning experience for the governor,” Ragone said. “He recognizes that he’s made mistakes in his tenure, and this is one of them -- not being out there talking directly to voters.”

Davis waited too late to make that appeal, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant who has advised two of the governor’s past Democratic opponents.


“He’s out there every day, giving it his best shot,” Carrick said. “But in this compressed time frame, it’s hard to have a real impact.”

All-Star Backers

In an attempt to appeal to his Democratic base, Davis has summoned what Ragone calls the “Democratic all-star team” -- national figures like Richardson, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and the ultimate non-Davis, that I-feel-your-pain schmoozer, former President Clinton.

But Davis seemed somehow diminished in the shadows of such men, a pallid version of the traditional vigorous, glad-handing pol.


McAuliffe is a garrulous, barrel-chested man who roused Davis’ union crowd with a passionate appeal for their no votes on the recall.

And when Richardson stood next to Davis at a health clinic, his burly frame only emphasized the governor’s slight stature. As Richardson and several female clinic staffers squirmed to keep their hair under control in a stiff breeze, Davis stood at attention, his hair unruffled.

The governor’s appearances last week were sober and restrained. There were no bands, no balloons, no banners, no posters. Those traditional accessories appeared only at a joint appearance Wednesday with Democratic presidential contender retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark -- and virtually all the posters and chants were for Clark, not Davis.

In a sea of “Draft Clark” posters was a faint smattering of understated posters that read: “NO to Recall” and “Governor Gray Davis -- Experience We Trust, Values We Share.”


At each event, Davis addressed two subjects that have dogged him -- the increase in car registration fees and the law that will let illegal immigrants get driver’s licenses.

At the Univision town hall meeting, Davis spent several minutes delivering a cogent, detailed explanation of the legislative and political processes that produced a 200% increase in the registration fees. In essence, he said, his hands had been tied by his Republican predecessor and Republicans in the Legislature.

His response to a question about licenses for illegal immigrants produced the comments about fruit pickers, janitors and maids. Asked later by reporters if he had been suggesting that immigrants are suited only for menial jobs, Davis said he had merely been pointing out that those are the only jobs available to illegal immigrants -- jobs rejected by most American workers but crucial to the state’s economy.

He complained that several questions at the town hall meeting had been “planted” by Republicans to embarrass him. He seemed to raise the accusation primarily to set up a carefully rehearsed sound bite:


“Mr. Schwarzenegger, if you have a question, ask me yourself. Don’t be afraid! Come in person. I’m happy to debate you.”

Such displays of political machismo were rare as Davis delivered carefully calibrated addresses on children’s health care, the state budget, the economy, jobs and the environment. He tried to turn his non-candidacy to his advantage, saying, “Candidates can say anything. A governor has to get things done.”

At his appearance with Clark, Davis was introduced as a “real-life action hero,” a reference to his combat service in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. But unlike Clark, Davis chose not to delve into his military service, focusing instead on his efforts to reduce the state deficit.

The governor stays focused on his daily message, said Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers and a longtime Davis supporter.


He is “very sincere, very deliberative and conscientious about his job,” she said. “He’s very ... composed -- that’s the word to describe him.”

Huerta said she had not been not surprised by Davis’ cautious, restrained approach to meeting voters. “He can’t be a glad-handing politician, even if he tried. He follows his own path.”

At one event Tuesday, Davis put in a polished performance as governor, signing a workers’ compensation reform bill.

He was coolly efficient, rattling off the names of assembled state legislators and recounting the twisted history of workers’ comp in California. In his element, talking policy, he seemed energized.


Most of his adult life has been consumed by politics and public office. He knows nothing else. “If this doesn’t turn out for him,” said Carrick, “he’s not going to end up on some sitcom, playing a warm and fuzzy dad.”

As sentiment for the recall gained in polls all week, Davis was oddly upbeat.

“There have been many elections when I’ve been called road kill and totally dismissed,” he said. “Somehow, sophisticated Californians have always decided they want me in public office.”