TCS Daily

The Colorful Candidate

By C. C. Kraemer - September 12, 2002 12:00 AM

Does anyone want to be governor of California? Or, with the Democratic incumbent suffering high disapproval ratings and choking on his poor approval numbers and his Republican challenger running as the Unknown Candidate, maybe the better question is: Does anyone want either of these guys to be governor?

California Gov. Gray Davis should be running away with the race. Spending up to 12 hours a day raising money, he's pumped more than $32 million into his campaign. (That includes $70,500 from Tosco Avon in an alleged deal where Davis permitted the oil company to increase by a factor of five its discharges of dioxin, a toxic chemical thought to cause cancer, in the San Francisco Bay.) Yet he can't pull away from his GOP opponent, Bill Simon, who is reportedly short on cash - he's raised about a third of what Davis has - and is hardly making a ripple with his campaign.

Somehow, the gray Davis has emerged as the colorful candidate. But that's only because he has acquired a number of fitting nicknames during his three-plus years in office. As a protégé of Gov. Moonbeam, Jerry Brown, and a less-than-impressive repairman during the dark - literally - days of the state's energy crisis, Davis was labeled Gov. Lowbeam. Variations have included Gov. Blackout, Gov. Dimbulb, the Ungovernor and Squat Davis.

While Davis provides court-jester entertainment, his opponent in the fall general election is quietly moving around California claiming to have saved nothing but nevertheless making some progress in a Democratic state. His own polling showed him to be seven points (48% to 41%) ahead of the short-circuited incumbent in the middle of March. At the end of July, a USA Today poll had Simon ahead 47% to 45%, even after Davis spent millions on television ads portraying (falsely) Simon as a business crook.

Recent results of The Field Poll have Davis ahead by seven percentage points but unable to bury Simon. Maybe that's because voters get a chill from the governor: The Field Poll has also found that his disapproval ratings have topped his approval ratings.

With one candidate running a dignified - though nearly invisible - campaign, and the other running from a well-known energy problem, his once close association with Rep. Gary Condit and a host of questions about the way he's financed his campaign, the last weeks of the California gubernatorial race should prove to be worth watching.

Making It Worse, And Cracking Up

To his credit, Davis didn't create the state's power problem that began in the winter of 2000 and haunts him still. The botched attempt at deregulation was a stale leftover from his Republican predecessor in the governor's office, Pete Wilson, and a Democratic state legislature. But blame Davis with not only failing to fix it but also for making it worse.

And blame him for cracking up so completely over the power problem that he wasn't able to recover enough to speak coherently with the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board.

"I saved this friggin' paper. I kept the lights on in this state. Do you understand that? I kept the lights on," the tetchy governor insisted at that meeting.

It's hard to decide which is more breathtaking: the Capt. Queeg-break with reality or the statement that preceded that rant where he admits he panicked in handling the crisis.

Apparently having temporarily escaped from his political handlers, Davis displayed for the Union-Tribune an astonishing Nixonian paranoia: "I kept the lights on. And this sounds a little presumptuous, but I think I should at least get a round of applause. I don't get squat.

"People just roundly criticize me."

Davis also talked about "a full-out war against me," which he said was "worse than being in Vietnam."

Yikes. Somebody must be out to get the guy. Does he also worry that his food has been poisoned?

All the more perplexing is the fact that some of his unexpected remarks poured out during his introductory statement. He had not even been asked a question.

When Davis isn't seeing critics around every corner or worrying that there are political enemies and Texans under his bed, he's giving Simon a verbal wringing out to save himself from the Sacramento mutiny.

"This state is not going to elect someone who has never held office, rarely voted and is out of step with the state on most major social issues, including women's right to choose, sensible gun control, energy deregulation.... He is pro-voucher and pro-privatization," Davis said of Simon. "You need to bring something to the table. You need to pay your dues. You need to serve on some board or commission. Run for some office. Do something that shows your civic contribution before you ask people to vote for you."

Clearly, Davis doesn't recognize those are precisely the reasons Simon has the support he does. There are savvy voters who understand just what political climbers who start on some board or commission are all about. And it isn't public service or a "civic contribution." It's blind, naked political ambition, the desire by small people who don't feel comfortable with the competition of the private sector to use the power of the state to insulate themselves and manage the lives of others.

Then there is the issue of congeniality - and Davis' lack of it. Voters see a sour, somewhat loopy politician whose best work has been to raise money for re-election.

"A lot of Californians just don't like the guy," is the simple observation of San Francisco Chronicle political writer Carla Marinucci.

The arrival of November will be a blessing to California voters weary with an obviously rattled yet still politically ambitious and quite desperate governor. They can throw out the rascal who gave them rolling blackouts and bring in someone who's not so concerned with political power for the sake of perpetuating it. In the meantime, there's always the chance that cheap entertainment will break out anytime Gray Davis opens his mouth.



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