California Gov. Gray Davis has been underestimated before. In 1998, President Clinton had so little faith in Davis and rival rich guy Al Checchi that he asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein to run for governor, lest GOP Attorney General Dan Lungren win the prize.
"I never would have bet on him in the beginning of 1998," admitted Bob Stern of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Wags had taken to calling Davis "Gumby."
Davis got the last laugh. He beat two well-heeled candidates in the primary, then trounced Lungren by 20 points.
Sharks smell his blood again as the energy crisis rolls on. GOP strategist Mark Bogetich noted, "The legislative Democrats are very, very worried that he's leading them and the Democratic Party onto thin ice.'" Republicans gleefully have dubbed electricity blackouts as "grayouts."
Davis hasn't helped his image with his quest to raise $50 million for the 2002 election campaign. It was bad PR when he attended a March $10,000-a-head golf fund-raiser while the Assembly was working on a much-needed energy bill.
While his staff contends that Davis was quick to deal with the energy crisis, few agree. Davis now credits long-term contracts with causing prices to fall, yet he was criminally slow in pushing through rules to that facilitate those contracts. He did not lean on San Jose pols when they rejected a power plant in Coyote Valley. (They've since reconsidered and approved the plant. But when the rest of America was laughing at San Jose, Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said, "It's not the role of state government to butt in on a local dispute.") No wonder Davis promised California 5,000 new megawatts by July 1, but will deliver only a third.
Yes, Davis has approved new power plants -- more than any California governor ever, he boasts -- and pushed for conservation. But it seems as if Davis cares more about pinning the crisis on Bush -- for not ordering price caps -- than in solving it.
Davis knows price caps can't work. Asked at a San Francisco Chronicle editorial board meeting about new federal price controls that kick in during shortages, Davis explained "how easy it is to get around" them. He used the same argument -- federal regulators' limited jurisdiction -- the Bushies use to argue against them.
Now, with his new $30,000-a-month (taxpayer-funded) spin team in place, Davis is fighting back. Last week was good-news week. Electricity rates are down. Because of his actions, Davis argued, California has "leverage" and prices have fallen.
Get it: When prices are high, it's because of Bush. When they drop, it's because of Davis.
If there are fewer or no blackouts next year, the scheme could work. Polls show that voters, who don't see the bill when their tax dollars buy high-priced electricity, blame Bush more than Davis.
And Gumby is good at revamping his role as underdog. He told The Chronicle that he heads a "rag-tag army" -- that's right, the guv of the world's sixth largest economy -- up against a sophisticated corporate arsenal.
Davis allowed the electricity crisis devolve. But, with the right spin, he could emerge the hero who saved California.
If -- a big IF -- there are no or few shortages during the summer of 2002, Democratic strategist Darry Sragow believes, "There's a very good chance that we'll get through the energy crisis and he'll get credit for helping California weather a very difficult time."
When Team Davis started issuing the good news, one disheartened GOP staffer moaned, "He's just going to win. I know it."