The Race for Lieutenant Governor: Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Cathie Wright vie to serve a heartbeat away -
In a large conference room above Sacramento, state Controller Gray Davis
was oddly exhilarated by the week's budget crisis. He had just returned from
a meeting with a large group of bankers who demanded the state prove it would
have the revenue to pay back a $4 billion loan. Legislators were scrambling
to come up with a series of potentially Draconian "triggers," which would
automatically cut spending or raise taxes if expected revenue did not
materialize (see budget story, page15). Davis had said he would not sign off
on the loans if these guarantees were not made. "It's exciting," he said.
"It's like coming to terms with a life style defect that is propelling
you tothe grave."
Several hours earlier GOP state Senator Cathie Wright had entered her
crowded Capitol office to be greeted with manila envelopes stuffed full with
the daily mail, most from supporters or detractors of this bill or another,
but included was one from a vehement man who wanted to complain about the
electronic recording devices that had been implanted in his head. "I love
people," Wright said as she made her way back to her desk.
"Whoever they are."
Davis and Wright are running for the often invisible post of lieutenant
governor, held since 1982 by Democrat Leo McCarthy, who is retiring from
state service. Davis and Wright provide a stark contrast: the careful
controller and the sometimes too passionate senator. Although a skillful
politician, the 51 year old Davis is at least half technocrat; his personal
style reflects his name more than any populist flamboyance, and the
issues hepushes tend to be more calculated than emotional. In line with current
nomenclature, he calls himself a "different kind of Democrat," expounding
earnestly on the imbalances created by unequal economic conditions, but
moving quickly to assure listeners that he is a fiscal conservative. "We have
an economic as well as a humane interest in seeing that everyone can produce,
in seeing that everyone has self esteem," he says.
Wright, 64, is a polar opposite of the somewhat colorless Davis. She is
volubly passionate about the range of conservative values she supports, so
much so that she often lets her words run ahead of her and says things that
come back to haunt her. An example earlier this year found her angrily
telling a critic at a committee hearing that he would only have the right to
criticize special interest contributions to legislators' campaigns when he
himself began to contribute. Wright said that much of her reputation in this
respect has been created and blown up by the media. "Say something at a point
of frustration ... they can make headlines on it, they can write columns on
it, they can decide your intelligence based on that one little statement.
Everything else you've done that is good is never printed," she said.
Neither candidate is a new name in state politics. Davis started his
career with an abortive run for state treasurer in 1974, and then became
chief of staff under Governor Jerry Brown. He served two terms in the
Assembly from West Los Angeles before moving to the controller's office in
1986. Wright has served in the Legislature for 14 years, 12 as an
assemblywoman from Simi Valley. She is currently halfway though her first
term as a state senator.
The lieutenant governorship is an office that gets little publicity, has
little real power, and has historically been a poor stepping stone to higher
office. But Davis contrasted it with his current position. "The controller
basically comes in to clean up a problem," he said. "I would like to work on
the front end. I liken this job to the guy following the elephant around in
Davis sees the lieutenant governor's position as head of the state's
Economic Development Commission as a tool to avoid future budgetary and
economic crises. He is vehement on this point, despite the lackluster role
the commission has played in past administrations. "I want to breathe life
into the ... commission," he said. "I want to reach out to small, medium and
large business and tell them we appreciate their putting up with our
Wright is less specific, if no less ambitious about her hopes for the
job. The position's responsibilities and influence are "wide open," she said.
"It depends on what kind of energy you bring to the office." The senator
added that she believed the office would be a good platform from which to
evaluate and streamline the state bureaucracy. "I'd like to have the time
afforded in that position," she said. "I'd like to look at some of the
programs, look at some the laws we have on the books, and eliminate them.
Not based on emotions, but based on the facts and figures."
These differing conceptions of what the office should be are not unusual
or at odds with a clearly defined list of responsibilities. The post comes
with a $90,000 salary but little in the way of real power; there is the
marginal chance that the governor might die or be picked for higher national
office, allowing the lieutenant governor to accede to the top job, but this
has not happened since Earl Warren moved to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953.
The lieutenant governor technically breaks a 20 20 tie in the Senate, another
extremely rare event, and serves as a University of California regent and a
trustee for the California State University system.
This leaves the officeholder to define the job largely as he or she
chooses. The office has a $1.3 million budget and a staff of 19. McCarthy
said that he spends most of his time working on economic development issues,
working with foreign governments and trade representatives to help open new
markets to state businesses. His position as lieutenant governor of
California is "a much bigger deal" in Asia than in his home state, he said
earlier this year.
In a year when impending term limits has provoked unprecedented attempts
at political office swapping, it could be said that a bid for lieutenant
governor was just a step upwards in the middle of a political career.
Certainly Davis, who ran against Dianne Feinstein in 1992's Democratic U.S.
Senate primary, has shown no lack of ambition. But McCarthy made two
unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate, and in recent memory only Democrat Mervyn
Dymally, who served in the early 1970s and went on to win a congressional
seat, parlayed the seat into some other office and then, only after he was
defeated for re election as lieutenant governor by Republican Mike Curb back
Roy Baer, a Democratic consultant and former McCarthy aide, dismisses the
notion that holding the seat is tantamount to political suicide. "There
aren't many places to move up to," he says. The competition for the top seats
is fierce, he adds, stressing that McCarthy simply ran at the wrong time,
against the wrong people.
But the relative powerlessness and the historical lack of promise of the
job does nothing to dampen the candidates' enthusiasm for its potential, and
the upcoming campaign promises all the drama of any other race, minus the
As of the middle of summer, the campaign resembles nothing so much as a
David and Goliath match. Davis is relatively well known throughout the state,
both from his time as state controller and from his ill fated run for Senate.
Wright has a base of support in Southern California, particularly in
conservative areas, but has gained little statewide name recognition from her
low profile primary against Redding Assemblyman Stan Statham.
In funding, too, there is a huge discrepancy; as of early July, Davis had
amassed a campaign chest of $2.3 million. Wright, by contrast, was forced to
spend herself into debt in order to beat Statham, and had little cash on hand
going into the summer. Republicans say she doesn't need to match Davis
dollar for dollar. "She just has to raise enough money to get her message out
to the voters," says GOP consultant Ray McNally.
In the primary Wright relied on what her chief aide, John Theiss, called
a "ground game," mobilizing district volunteers to spread her name and her
conservative message. In a Republican primary skewed to the conservative
voters particularly with such a low turnout this strategy proved
successful. But Davis has enough money for quite a few well placed,
well produced television ads, the lifeblood of the modern Californian
political campaign. The controller has a mixed history of attack ads; a 1992
spot comparing Feinstein to incarcerated hotelier Leona Helmsley backfired
badly, but should not dissuade Davis from mounting an aggressive media
campaign against Wright in the fall.
Davis has been working hard to control the traditional Republican issues
crime and business before Wright has a chance to define herself or him
in the public eye. He has the advantage of being a moderate with a
reputation for fiscal conservatism and a record of support of economic plans
that would not be out of place at a meeting of Republicans. He is currently
trumpeting his backing of the Taco Bell tax break plan he asserts that the
corporate tax break given the corporation headquarters would more than pay
for itself in personal income tax gains and has close at hand a sheaf of
articles he has written on streamlining the state's business regulations.
He has also taken an early lead in garnering law enforcement support, a
vital link in any campaign this year. In combination, these factors should
protect him from the soft on crime, hard on business brush often used to tar
Wright is betting that her conservatism will resonate with an
increasingly right leaning voting population. With her opponent staking out
the middle ground, she will need to link her fate with Governor Pete Wilson
as much as she can, trying to take advantage of Wilson's crack campaign team
to boost her own candidacy. One of her biggest advantages, Republican
observers say, is Davis' past as Governor Jerry Brown's chief of staff if
she can link her opponent with Brown's liberal legacy, and particularly the
appointment of the unpopular Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court. If so, she
may be able push Davis away from the center in the minds of swing voters.
"She has an uphill fight," says veteran McNally. "But she is a scrapper.
She's run a lot of tough campaigns in the past and won."
Despite the support she may get from Wilson's campaign, Wright is in the
uncomfortable position of needing women's votes to win, but also needing to
attack a woman candidate for governor Democrat Kathleen Brown who is
well liked by most organized women's groups. She says that she hopes that
this will be the true year of the woman; in the past, she says, "When they
talk about the year of the woman, they talk about the Democrats." She makes a
distinction between ideology and gender representation, saying they are part
of a package, and that voters and women's groups should look at both. "Who
more can represent a woman than someone with the heart and feelings of a
woman?" she asks.
But Davis is already moving to capture this base of support, too. His
campaign has compiled a long list of Wright's legislative votes on "women's
issues," going back to her years as an assemblywoman, on which it says
"Wright is wrong." Claiming to review the votes of 13 years, the list and
others like it focusing on different issues is not complete, but will be a
powerful campaign tool when shown to women's groups.
With three months left, the race is still wide open, and as in the Old
Testament, Cathie Wright as David still has every opportunity to win in
November. But the odds are stacked against her; she'll have to find a mighty
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