The man who isn't there

Posted: Jul 19, 2003 12:00 AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A caravan of big-rigs drove by the state Capitol Tuesday morning, the drivers leaning on their very loud horns in protest of a proposed diesel-fuel rule. When I interviewed Gov. Gray Davis later that day, he tells me he never heard them.

Apparently, Davis doesn't hear at lot of things. He doesn't hear the anger of voters clamoring to recall him from office. He doesn't hear the whispers in the Capitol that he is irrelevant in budget negotiations. He doesn't hear a little voice inside his head that should be yelling, "You've got to start kicking butt and taking prisoners, you lump."

As we sit at the gubernatorial conference-room table, I mention the recall and ask the governor why he is in this position.

"In what position?" he asks.

(Facing a probable recall, Gov. Denial.)

"I think you see from today's newspaper, the public is in a sour mood about all of its elected officials," Davis answered, citing The San Francisco Chronicle's Tuesday story on the Field Poll, which showed a mere 19 percent of voters approve of the Legislature's performance, even worse than the governor's 23 percent approval rating.

When I asked if there was any animus toward Davis in particular, he replied: "But it's clear it's across the board. If I were the only problem in California, their attitudes toward the Legislature would be different."

As the saying goes, misery loves company.

There's a lawsuit by Davis allies that could slow down the certification process and stall a recall election until March. So I ask: If the recall is so bad for California because it breeds uncertainty, isn't it in the state's best interest for a recall to occur sooner rather than later?

Again, Davis points elsewhere. Referring to the independent campaign behind the lawsuit, the governor answered, "You'll have to talk to the people who put together the lawsuit." Although he did add that it's "perfectly appropriate" for others to sue.

Does Davis think it's wise to run such a nasty campaign against recall financier Darrell Issa? (Consider Democratic prankster Bob Mulholland's efforts to find a 1972 Maserati -- to remind people that Issa once was charged with car theft, even though Issa never was convicted.)

Now Davis is engaged. He winks at me, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. "

Besides, he added, the examination of Issa's life is "fair game," considering that the recall will cost taxpayers "$35 million to $60 million." (The secretary of state estimates $30 million to $35 million.)

Then, when it comes to the state budget, the governor doesn't take responsibility. On Tuesday, Davis blamed the national recession for the $38 billion shortfall. But as former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, later reached by telephone, noted, "People knew that the budget that was enacted last year was a sham, and the other shoe would fall this year." Since a governor can use his line-item veto power and can refuse to sign a bad budget, Davis is to blame.

When will there be a budget? Again, Davis is no take-charge guy.

"My proposal's been on the table since May 15. Everybody has had their day in court to present their budget, so there should be no more excuses. I said this afternoon, 'You should drop everything else, put all business aside except the budget.'"

Then to show how hard he was working, Davis mentioned that Wednesday he would attend his 27th "Big Five" meeting. (The Big Five consists of the governor and Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses.)

Meeting is good: Give the man five points. But meeting is not producing results. As former Wilson aide Bill Whalen observed: "I just don't know how many legislators take him seriously. They just don't fear him."

No lie. Expecting legislators to pass a budget because he said so is equivalent to parents expecting their babies to diaper themselves.

"He ought to make his case to the public for what he's doing," Wilson noted, "just as I did when we wanted to cut the car tax."

Instead, Davis continues to govern at an arm's length. There should be a little voice in his head telling him to break eggs and make the omelet. But he's listening to the voice that says: Smear your opponent. It worked before.