Governor Gray Davis - Digital Library
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The Los Angeles Times

July 7, 2006


Bright Days for Gray Davis

John Balzar
Times Staff Writer

Gray Davis is smiling now. He's talking about becoming older and wiser, about getting the most from his days. A jury in Texas settled the biggest grudge in his life, sort of. He has time for his family, and ground to make up. He is earning money again. He's picking his shots when he speaks out. He's loosened up -- which is not to call him fun-loving by ordinary standards, mind you. He won't be seen kicking up his heels on Sunset Strip. But look closely, and there's plainly a spring in his step.

"Nobody likes change," says the former California governor. "You can put me in the front of the line." To prove it, he bites into a turkey sandwich.  "I've had the same lunch for the last 32 years." Thick-sliced turkey, flatbread, a light swipe of mustard, raw vegetables in a baggie. This one was assembled by his wife.

But change was forced on him in one of California's biggest political upheavals. Three years ago, fanned by a whirlwind of anger, opportunism and novelty, the recall began.  That autumn, Davis was swept from office, cutting short a lifetime of public service. He remembers boarding an airliner in Sacramento on the day it all came to an end.... He doesn't finish the thought.

For many Californians, the picture ended there. A movie star named Arnold Schwarzenegger took the stage.

Catching up with Gray Davis now, you find him settled into a new life in Southern California -- and not so bad a life, either, from the looks of it and what he says of it.

"I view myself as a teacher and an elder statesman," he says.

For 80% of his workdays -- by his count -- he practices corporate law as "of counsel" to Loeb & Loeb in Century City, a firm where attorneys wear casual attire, even Davis, and which American Lawyer magazine called one of "best places" in the country to work.

When you look past the three flagstaffs behind his corner-office desk, you can see the downtown Los Angeles skyline. You can also glimpse a couple of holes of the nearby Los Angeles Country Club. His office is only blocks from his spacious new home in Westwood. He drives himself to work in his Lexus.

"I am enjoying this chapter of my life," he says. "There's room for growth, for fulfillment, and I have more time with my family."

If you have known Gray Davis for 33 of his 63 years and spend time with him now, you are inclined to believe him.

He still picks his words deliberately, yes. That was never a pose. He still prefers a qualifier to an exclamation point, and that is natural too. But a great weight has come off his shoulders. Of the many things that were said about this Democrat who won five statewide elections -- controller, lieutenant governor, governor -- there was rarely a complaint that he didn't give it everything. Today, the heather polo shirt in the office seems to suit him fine, even if his hair still looks freshly starched.

"Whenever Arnold sees me," he says, "he asks how come I look so good. I tell him it's because he's got the responsibility."

And there's the smile. Television was never particularly kind. His smile often had the self-conscious stiffness of someone with a fresh face-lift. It's a bigger smile now and it comes easier, particularly when he turns his wit to himself.

"Oh, that," he'll say when the conversation turns to the heady years when his ambitions were as boundless as the possibilities. "That was when I knew everything there was to know." The remark brings a grand smile.

Then he's not smiling. He's reflecting on his curtailed second term. "Do I think about it? The answer is yes. Do I talk about it? No.

"There are highs and lows in life. On balance, I feel I'm ahead of the game.... If I look at the totality of my public life, I feel fortunate to have served for more than 30 years. And I believe I was part of positive developments."

Lawyers have high esteem for experience. Those who achieve senior stature are thought to have wisdom and a responsibility to share it with the next generation.

That's how Davis expresses his role in politics.

"Life is a relay race. You run as hard and as fast as you can. Then you pass on the baton. If a Democrat wants my opinion, I'll give it." He has met privately with most of the Democrats seeking statewide office this year.

If a group or a school wants him as a speaker, he might do that as well. He was a guest lecturer at UCLA's School of Public Policy last semester, teaming up with former Republican state Senate leader Jim Brulte. Within a span of a few days recently, he traveled to San Diego to attend the retirement dinner for the county superintendent of public instruction and to North Hollywood High School to talk about state budget priorities with graduating seniors. If he sees the chance, he will defend his achievements -- the high school exit exam, for example. He's writing an introduction for a journalist's book on the Amber Alert system for missing children, a cause he championed.

That makes up the other 20% of his workweek.

He interrupts. He wants to make something clear: Gray Davis is not out seeking attention. This isn't campaign 2006, where he's working the phones to gin up fresh interest in himself. He's taking calls, not making them.

Not that he couldn't. He has one of the biggest Rolodexes in California, and he worked it with a reputation for relentlessness for three decades. But he is not lobbying now, he says. Not officially nor unofficially. Not once, he says, has he sought a favor from a legislator. However, as a political coach, he will point people in a direction and suggest whom to call and what to say.

As for this story, he didn't telephone and ask to be interviewed. He didn't extend an invitation to lunch or for nine holes of golf. You called and asked.

Now you must ask another question; it's part of the interview ritual.

"I don't see it," he says about another run for office. "There's a time and a place for everything. I've moved on. Even if people could talk me into it, I'd have to deal with Sharon. She doesn't want to go there."

Sharon and Gray Davis have been married for 23 years. No longer in the spotlight as first lady, she is active on the boards of UNICEF Southern California, Loyola Marymount University and the Sisters of Providence of Terre Haute, Ind. During a recent conversation in San Diego, she put her husband's sentiments into different words: "In so many ways our life is better. Now there's time for that family reunion, for that golf vacation, those things we didn't have....

"You know, we've always been there for each other. When he needed me, I was there. When I needed him, I knew he'd be there. We haven't always been in the same place." You can see the spring in her step too.

"It's just the two of us," he says later. "We're very close."

Davis was traveling on Interstate 95 out of Jacksonville, Fla., when the Enron verdicts rendered by a Texas jury were announced. He spoke to reporters from the cellphone in his car. There was requital in his voice that day, and it's there on this day too.

"Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, more than anyone, are the reason I'm talking to you now from this law firm."

Enron's market scams and the blackouts of 2000-01 staggered the state and its governor. The incremental, free-market Democrat who always began with the assumption that most companies were out to do the right thing never recovered. So there is a little of the Old Testament's eye for an eye in his tone when he observes that Skilling "will spend a good portion of the rest of" his life in prison.

"It's justice of a sort: poetic justice, not pure justice."

As for Lay, who died suddenly in the predawn of Wednesday, Davis takes a breath. "In many ways the victims of his fraud were shortchanged. Watching Ken Lay go to prison would have brought closure to a lot of people.... People were looking for closure and they never got it."

He shakes his head. Lay and Skilling "could have made a fortune legally. But that wasn't enough for them."

Before the state energy crisis, Davis' approval rating hovered near 60% in public opinion polls, and he was on knowing lists of presidential prospects. A booming economy during his early years as governor made it possible to sharply increase education spending and reduce car license fees.

Then, with blackouts and soaring energy costs, his popularity nose-dived. The dot-com bust left the state facing colossal deficits, painful cuts and an increase in the license fees.

A word to the wise, he tells the class of seniors at North Hollywood High: "Don't take something back from people once you've given it to them."

Instinctively a consensus politician, he found himself governing in an era when consensus was no longer in fashion. Legislators in safe districts didn't split the difference for their constituents but appealed directly to the faithful -- left or right -- who held sway in primary elections and who, to generalize, were less interested in giving ground than in taking it.

The force of personality necessary to bring about a meeting of minds during these challenging times eluded him, and he got the odd reputation of being both cautious and imperious, both beholden to supporters and unable to satisfy them. His approval rating fell to 24%.

In 2003, Republican leader Brulte told The Times that Davis lacked the basics of political collegiality to pull him through hard times. "I never felt I got to know him ... I always felt a little sorry for him."

That's changed now.  Brulte and Davis are classroom sidekicks these days, trying to pass along their shared understanding of governance to a new generation of leaders.

 "Just watch him, you'll see," Brulte says. "If the Gray Davis I know now was the one I interacted with up there, he'd still be governor."

 Now Davis wants to write a book. He waited for the Enron trial's conclusion this spring.

 "I'm not prepared to say what it is," he says. "But I'm prepared to begin the journey.... The verdicts sounded a bell, and I'm ready to get into the ring." With the help of his secretary, Anne Chang, who followed him from his campaign, he also has undertaken the task of getting his speeches and press releases posted on a website, a small-scale virtual library of his administration that aims to leave behind "a sense of what went on during those five years."

 No, he hasn't let go completely.

 Does he feel the old urge to speak out on today's policy debates? He pauses and looks out the window. "Part of me thinks that part of life is behind me."

I t's the weekend, and Davis is on the golf course now.

 During his years in office, he was skittish about being seen at play. He erected a wall around his private life. Curiously, that was one of the things that worked against him. Even his friends felt snubbed. For all those years in the public eye, he created the image of a man who wasn't fully revealed. Work wasn't enough for a public official. Insiders wanted in; they wanted to pal around with him, maybe grill some hot dogs and never mind the turkey.

 Cracks have opened up in the famously impenetrable wall now. That's the most apparent change of all. Life is less about playing defense.

 It's not a duffer's casual game for Gray Davis, but a craftsman's athletic soliloquy. His love of the game goes back to the very beginning. His parents were golfers, his mother a club champion. His father died on the 13th hole at 74. He's seen photographs of himself with a club in his hand at age 7. He played on the Stanford golf team with a two handicap.

 His drives aren't what they used to be. Rail thin, as always, and wearing a Dodgers cap and sunglasses, he's in and out of the rough. "My father told me that you reach an age when you take satisfaction in every good shot." His short game has lasted, though -- precise, lips pursed, teeth biting down on his tongue, steady and commanding.

 He shoots a 44 for nine holes this day; Sharon, a 52.

 Dusk. After 22 years in a hide-out condo in West Hollywood, Gray and Sharon Davis moved to a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise home twice as large.

 Change has given the couple the gift of space, as well as time.

 Furnished with English antiques in a style Sharon Davis calls "traditional," their home is open, uncluttered, the pale lemon paint softening the light. Walls of glass provide views of the distant ocean and of downtown.

 "People sometimes come up and say they wish I was still in office," Gray Davis says with another smile.

 "I tell them, yeah, but then I wouldn't have time to hang out with you."