SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gray Davis is getting his first glimpse of relief after months under the political cloud of soaring electricity prices and rolling blackouts.
A series of events – from plummeting wholesale energy and natural gas prices to the unexpected shift in the U.S. Senate – has left Davis declaring that the state has “turned a corner” in its power woes.
But politically, he still must weather the hottest summer months, the arrival of rising electricity bills at homes and a recent dive in his popularity ratings.
“Some irreparable damage has been done to his image and his popularity,” said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Two statewide polls recently showed Davis’ approval rating plummeted to its lowest marks since he took office while electricity rates climbed.
Meanwhile, Davis fought to shed his image as a middle-of-the-road leader, adopting a new, confrontational style in dealing with the crisis.
He hired high-powered crisis control specialists Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, trained at the Clinton White House and in the Al Gore presidential campaign. He declared “war” on Texas-based energy wholesalers.
Davis also attacked the Bush administration for opposing price controls on wholesale electricity.
Soon after, the crisis-weary governor’s fortunes started to shift.
Vermont Sen. James Jeffords announced he would defect from the GOP, handing the majority and committee chairmanships to Democrats who favor price caps on wholesale electricity.
President Bush, who had been criticized for failing to visit the state since he took office, traveled to the state and met with Davis.
On a scorching afternoon in late May, the state came within the brink of blackouts, but dodged them.
The state Energy Commission announced that Californian’s had cut power use by 11 percent in May over the year before, which Davis called a personal victory because he has called for residents and businesses to conserve 10 percent.
Last week, the price of wholesale electricity and natural gas plunged to its lowest price in a year. Davis aides called that a direct result of Davis signing long-term contracts with energy providers.
“We may still have some difficult days ahead of us in the summer but it’s pretty clear that the governor’s strategy has now borne some fruit,” said Garry South, chief campaign adviser to Davis.
Still, the energy crisis has battered the governor once considered a potential presidential contender in 2004.
His state, heavily reliant on the fortunes of the technology sector to fill its treasury, is facing its toughest budget crunch in years.
Also, some experts said Davis has called a premature victory in the energy crisis. The state has yet to sell $13.4 billion worth of bonds to repay the state for power buys, and California still relies heavily on the spot power market to make up for electricity shortages.
California Republicans, meanwhile, are fortifying their campaign against Davis and the Democrats that control both houses of the legislature and all but one statewide office. The state party hired veteran consultant Rob Stutzman to counter Davis’ hiring of Lehane and Fabiani.
Stutzman worked for former insurance commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, who resigned under the threat of impeachment last year. Stutzman said Davis has little for which to take credit.
“The governor is like a little kid that breaks his mother’s china and then wants credit for gluing half of it back together,” Stutzman said.
In California, Davis’ short-term fortunes look better because of his fragmented opposition. He holds strong leads over the two Republicans who have announced they will challenge him, Secretary of State Bill Jones and Los Angeles businessman William E. Simon Jr.
Plus, Republicans in Washington and a large chunk of the state’s Republican congressional delegation have tried to lure outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan into the governor’s race, afraid that Jones and Simon lack the necessary star power to oppose Davis.
Whoever runs against Davis will find an incumbent with more than $26 million raised for next year and a team of campaign advisers already using focus groups and polling to gauge public reaction to the power crisis.