The Magazine

Where Liberals Still Rule

In California, it's leftward ho!

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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San Francisco
SOMETHING went terribly wrong on the way to last week's Republican revolution: California. While the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives were lining up Republican, Sacramento was looking like Washington, D.C., in reverse: The governor's mansion, the state Senate, and the Assembly will remain firmly in the hands of Democrats, who also may have captured every statewide office (not all vote counts are final at this writing). Soon there won't be anyone to greet President Bush when he gets off the plane to visit California. If he visits California.

Still, beneath the all-Democratic surface of state politics, last Tuesday saw one significant shift: Governor Gray Davis was reelected with just 47 percent of the vote--down from the 58 percent he won in 1998. While that landslide reflected weariness with 16 years of Republican executives more than enthusiasm for the colorless Davis, this year's distinctly tepid showing confirms Davis's failure to establish himself in his first term as a popular leader of the state.

Davis will continue to face the most left-wing legislature in America. The Senate breakdown probably will remain 26 Democrats, 14 Republicans. In the Assembly, despite the loss of up to 3 seats, the Democrats will retain at least 47 of 80 seats. Since it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass the state budget, Gov. Davis will have to peel off a few Republican votes in each house to pass a budget. The bottom line: The chief thing standing between California taxpayers and the legislature's long and creative left-wing agenda is Davis's dream of winning the White House as a moderate Democrat.

The next four years, in other words, are likely to look a lot like the last four, with the legislature pushing left and the governor, jealous of his moderate credentials, often hedging his bets, sometimes going along, sometimes resisting.

Davis tries to style himself the long-suffering adult supervisor of a gaggle of far-out Democrats and contentious Republicans. That might be credible if Davis had spent less of his time raising $65 million for his campaign and actually had overseen the legislative process. Instead, his game has been to keep mum on most bills until they reach his desk, in the meantime watching his campaign collect checks from interests that regard the Davis administration as a pay-to-play operation. His policies swing from rewarding donors to rewarding key constituencies.

Even though Davis served in the Assembly, he never established cordial relations with lawmakers. His imperious nature angered Sacramento Democrats, who see less of Davis than his major donors. And when they do see him, he's not exactly Mr. Personality. His no-muss hair and buttoned-down manner have prompted the nickname Gumby. Davis tries to make light of his non-personality; he can always joke about being Al Gore's charisma adviser. But few lawmakers laughed when Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999 that it was the legislature's job "to implement my vision." Ever styling himself the moderate Democrat, Davis added, "They have a totally different view of the world than I do, totally different. It was my vision that commanded a 20-point victory."

But visionary leadership has not characterized Davis's tenure. On the contrary, early in his first term liberal Democratic legislators seized the initiative, passing a spate of union-friendly, business-hostile bills. One that Davis signed was a measure restricting the 40-hour flextime work week in favor of the inflexible 8-hour work day. Then Democrats started taking bites out of workers' compensation reforms enacted under the previous governor, Pete Wilson, when lawmakers of both parties had responded to cries for help from employers up against a costly and fraud-ridden system. Davis signed an increase in benefits.

The California energy crisis came in the summer of 2000. Bad poll numbers for Davis mounted as he put off a decision on how to deal with electricity shortages, but declined to put off fund-raising. Californians' ire also was directed toward energy giants and utilities; as blackouts continued in 2001, angry leftists began flirting with Green party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo.

When the legislature was working on a bill that promised to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, in the spirit of the unratified Kyoto global warming treaty, journalists asked the governor if he planned to sign it. Davis was coy. He didn't want to alienate enviros, but he also was aware that almost half of new vehicle purchases in California in 2000 were of light trucks and SUVs. Nonetheless, with Camejo threatening to steal protest votes, Davis climbed onto the greenhouse gas bandwagon. (Last week, Camejo took 5 percent of the vote.)