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A California governor who sees in shades of gray

First Democrat to rule nation's largest state in 16 years pursues centrist approach, avoiding some of the 'wedge issues' of his GOP predeccesor.

There is something decidedly placid and unchanging about California's State Capitol, an ornate white structure nestled among towering cedars, flowering magnolias, and citrus trees.

In contrast to the casual chic of Los Angeles, the frenetic inventiveness of Silicon Valley and the cosmopolitanism of San Francisco, Sacramento has a metronome that seems to be the clicking gears of a massive bureaucracy that churns slowly and methodically.

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But there is something different this spring, beyond the persistently cool weather that has kept the usual heat of this central-valley city at bay.

After 16 years of Republican rule, the America's largest and most diverse state is in the hands of a Democrat. It was one of the nation's most clear-cut and dramatic electoral changes last November. And this week, the capital was abuzz with the results, the hopes, and the frustrations that have accompanied that sea change.

The results of the change were embodied in the cordial hug between California's new Gov. Gray Davis and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon on the capitol's steps beneath the gently billowing flags of their separate but increasingly interlocked realms.

As the two disappeared through the granite archways of the capitol's main entrance, a powerful gesture was complete that began months ago when newly elected Governor Davis made one of his first acts a trip to Mexico.

Symbolism? Sure, but as Phillip Isenberg, former longtime Democratic assemblyman and mayor of Sacramento, puts it: "Repairing the social fabric" between California and Mexico that had became so tattered by the end of the Pete Wilson era is "a very big deal."

Having pledged repeatedly to end "the era of wedge-issue politics in California," Davis gets credit from members of both parties for having swiftly put action behind those words. President Zedillo's visit and warm words seem to have ended internal squabbling over Davis's recent handling of a voter-approved ballot initiative that denied many social services to illegal immigrants. Championed by then Governor Wilson, gutted by the courts and then appealed by Wilson, Davis chose a middle-course of asking the court to mediate a settlement.

DAVIS is also applauded by partisans on each side for delivering on his promise to make the state's poor performing public education system his top priority. He convened a special session of the legislature earlier this year and rammed through a handful of bills that, while not revolutionary, emulated reform efforts that have shown promise in other states.

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But as Davis hosted Zedillo this week, the legislative timetable for next year's budget edged closer to a time of reckoning on a range of bills, particularly in the areas of labor and health care. And it is on the legislative front that analysts are far less sure what difference it will make having Democrat Davis as governor.

"This is a guy who, to the letter, is a new-style Democrat, a poll-driven centrist right out of the Bill Clinton mold," says Peter Schrag, author of "Paradise "Paradise Lost," about modern California politics.

Indeed, Davis pledged to "govern neither from the right nor from the left, but from the center, propelled not by ideology, but by common sense...."

In practice, that's meant a governor who has given extraordinarily few indicators of where he stands on a host of issues beyond his opening priorities of education and better relations with Mexico.

Labor, for instance, a powerful part of the Davis winning coalition, is pushing a number of bills, including one to require overtime pay for any work more than eight hours. Davis has pledged support, but most analysts feel he is unlikely to jeopardize his centrist line by angering big business. Some kind of compromise is expected, but there are no clues to its shape.

In Davis's proposed budget, there was surprisingly little consultation with leaders of his own party, according to veteran Democrats. "It was disrespectful," says one.

"The left wing of the Democratic Party has an agenda, particularly on labor issues," says Tony Quinn, a Republican analyst who worked in the GOP administration of Governor Deukmejian. "But the governor is disengaged on those issues. It could be that his definition of being a moderate is really to just not get engaged in certain issues."

Mr. Isenberg, who helped with the Davis transition, calls the new governor "very operational, very frugal" and says he deliberately avoids getting involved in "big ideas."

That increasingly fits the bill of the modern relationship between Californians and their state government, say analysts.

The state either already is or soon will be the first major state without a white majority. Its water, building, and transportation infrastructure need attention. The influx of Asians and Latinos is creating socioeconomic cleavages.

Yet voters have in recent decades taken governance of key issues increasingly into their own hands, through the ballot initiative, everything from bilingual education to affirmative action. "The legislature for 30 years has overlooked the big stuff," says Quinn, and there are no signs voters want a more activist governor or legislature.

Within that framework, Davis appears to be a good fit.

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