Los Angeles — Speaking at the state Democratic convention this weekend, Gov. Gray Davis praised himself and attacked GOP opponents as uninspired and driven by corporate interests, in what many observers called the unofficial beginning of Davis’ bid for re-election.
“You can’t lead this state of 34 million people with old ideas and vague generalities,” Davis told the more than 2,500 assembled Democratic delegates. “All three support full energy deregulation. All three believe we should trust the energy companies and the free market to solve all of our energy problems.”
Hitting a note of toughness that is sure to be one of the hallmarks of Davis’ re-election campaign, the governor warned.
“In case my opponents were asleep while we were being gouged by generators and ignored by federal regulators, here’s a wake-up call: California will return to its disastrous deregulation scheme over this governor’s dead body.”
Unlike the rest of the speakers, who, when faced with a Republican president whose approval ratings hover in mid 80th percentile, opted to attack Enron, Davis’ speech had no mention of the bankrupted energy giant. Davis has been criticized for accepting more than a $119,000 in campaign contributions from the Houston-based Enron.
Davis concentrated instead on his administration’s accomplishments. Citing an increase in nurse-to-patient ratios, an expanded health-care system for needy children and the working poor, and the strongest domestic partnership laws in the nation, Davis boasted that California was a better place now than it was when he entered office.
“Four years ago, I promised you that California would be stronger, kinder and better now than it was then,” Davis told the cheering delegates. “I have delivered on that promise.”
Davis will face the victor of the March 5 GOP primary between former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, California Secretary of State Bill Jones, and businessman Bill Simon.
In a poll conducted January 29 by the Los Angeles Times, Davis was shown to be in a dead heat with Riordan.
At a press conference later in the day Davis told reporters that while his main priority was re-election and the governing of California, he declined to rule out a possible presidential (or vice-presidential) bid in 2004. “All that I can tell you is that I have no plans but to work as hard as I can to be re-elected and spend the next four years being governor,” Davis said accompanied by his wife, Sharon.
If Davis does decide to make a presidential bid, attendees of the convention got a good look at who his likely Democratic opponents would be. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, were all present Saturday morning to give state Democrats a boost, and, according to many observers, to show themselves off as presidential hopefuls for 2004.
While none of the three Senators admitted to executive ambitions, none denied the possibility of a 2004 presidential run. Senator Kerry was the most explicit in connecting his name to the office of president. “A number of you have asked me if I’m interested in running for the most powerful office in the land,” he joked in his opening remarks. “And no, I have no interest in being secretary of state of Florida.”
But while there may have been passing reference to the 2000 election fiasco which placed George Bush in the presidency, criticism of Bush’s policies was distinctly lacking. While none of the speakers dwelled on the events Sept. 11, many made mention of their support of the United States’ efforts to combat terrorism.
As though in deference to the President’s stellar approval ratings, speakers devoted only a small portion of their time to bashing Bush on domestic issues. But even then, speakers felt compelled to justify their criticism as being a part of the very Democratic process the country is fighting for in its war on terror. Being patriotic and supporting the president’s efforts to combat terrorism, said California Senator Barbara Boxer, “does not mean being quiet and becoming a fly on the wall on every other issue.”
Criticisms of the president were mainly linked to his administration’s ties to Enron.
“George Bush has given us a government that looks like it’s run like an Enron board meeting,” said Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe.
Senator Boxer joined in criticizing the Bush team: “This administration has embraced an energy policy that is drill drill and burn burn,” she said.
But while many of the speakers spoke out against Enron, Governor Davis reserved his mention of the corporation for the press conference following his speech. Responding to a reporter’s question of whether Davis was considering refunding the campaign contributions given him by Enron to former Enron employees, Davis countered defensively. “No one in America fought Enron harder [than I did],” Davis said.
“I had to fight Enron tooth and nail--so I see no reason to give back the money.”
But while many delegates supported Davis, his relationship to Enron kept them from endorsing the governor unequivocally. “You can’t help but question anyone who, under the circumstances, took campaign contributions [from Enron],” said Harvey Kessler, 47, a delegate from Palm Desert, CA. “Enron was charging enormous rates to California while he was taking campaign contributions.” Still, Kessler, who came dressed in a neon Hawaiian shirt, with Uncle Sam hat and tennis shoes added, he wouldn’t judge Davis by a single issue, and in general “liked” the governor.
Xavier Raeyes of the United Farm Workers (UFW), was less generous with his support. “He’s a Democrat in office,” said Raeyes. “It’s a lesser of two evils. Who do you want? A Republican, or a Democrat?”
UFW political director Giev Kashkooli was likewise reserved in his support of Davis. “I think he has a mixed record,” Kashkooli said of Davis’ support of farm workers unions and immigrant rights. “There’s a lot more things he could be doing. He’s been slow to act.”
Kashkooli said that though he thought Davis was sympathetic to the UFW’s cause, he didn’t think Davis had committed much time to it. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s not a priority for Davis,” said Kashkooli. “We’re on his list, but we’re pretty far down on the list.”
Kashkooli said it was important for Davis to have the support of the UFW “because it basically represents the Latino community.”
Maria Martinez, the northern vice chair of the Chicano/Latino Caucus was more enthusiastic about Davis. “We strongly support Gray Davis,” she said. “Davis is the first governor who’s gone to Mexico. I think he’s done a very good job.”
Martinez gave Davis high marks for appointing Latinos to policy-making positions in his government. “We’re very happy about that,” said Martinez. “We’ll do whatever we can to help Davis help Latinos.”
From the looks of it, Davis may need all the help he can get. Although his party overwhelmingly controls the state government, in the above-mentioned Los Angeles Times poll, less than half of all registered Democrats polled said they would definitely vote for Davis. He’s also going up against a Republican party that has strong national support, an extremely popular president, and a lot at stake in California with its 55 electoral votes. But Davis said he was ready for tough race. “I’m Gray Davis and I am the governor,” he said. “Whichever one of you emerges from the Republican primary--you’re in for the fight of your life.”