A License To Bop Davis

In a particularly inauspicious moment early in his first year in office, Gov. Gray Davis let loose at an editorial board meeting with the notion that the Democratically controlled Legislature’s “job” was to “implement my vision.” This unfortunate remark set off a predictable orgy of opprobrium — some of it involving obvious questions about Davis’s understanding of the separation of powers.

Editorial cartoonists had a field day. One depicted King Davis on a lofty throne, with the Legislature as a lowly scribe taking down his every word. Another drew a huge-headed Davis, state Constitution in hand, demanding to know who wrote “this chicken poop.”

The preternaturally moderate Davis had pledged in his inaugural address to “govern neither from the right nor the left, but from the center.” But far from bending the Legislature to his centrist will, during his five years he more often faced an aggressively left-of-center Democratic body that thought the election of the first Democratic governor in 20 years meant happy days were here again.

Almost instantly, the flood of liberal legislation began. Hundreds of bills were sent to Davis that he believed were excessive, overly expensive or downright unnecessary — many of them passed on straight party-line, bare-majority votes. He threw himself in front of the train on numerous occasions. But as he vetoed more and more pet Democratic legislation — some of it multiple times — the governor’s support among Democratic base voters, and especially leftish interest groups, began to flag.

Perhaps the primero example of his dilemma was the so-called driver’s license bill, which would have granted driving permits to illegal immigrants. In the fall of 2002, right at the end of a difficult re-election campaign, the Democratic Legislature flung this bill at Davis.

Although it contained some measures aimed at protecting public safety as demanded by Davis, the governor’s lawyers laughed when they read some of the provisions. Ultimately, they concluded, it would grant a California driver’s license even to individuals with arrest warrants for treason, espionage, sabotage, homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, drug trafficking, flight escape or smuggling. Davis, citing the new post-9/11 security realities, reluctantly vetoed it.

All hell broke loose. The bill’s sponsor, then-Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, denounced Davis and announced he couldn’t vote for him for re-election. The Legislative Latino Caucus formally rescinded its endorsement of the governor. The coverage of Davis’s veto on Spanish-language TV was as brutal as anything I’ve ever seen. In fact, at one point I made a special trip to talk to the brass at Telemundo, pleading for at least a modicum of journalistic objectivity and balance in covering the subject.

Then, history repeated itself. In September, just weeks before the recall election, Democratic legislators again slapped the governor with a bill to grant licenses to illegal immigrants. This version, rammed through the Legislature with nary a Republican vote, lacked even the fig leaf of woefully inadequate protections contained in the 2002 bill. But Davis, fighting for his very political existence and mindful of the firestorm over his previous veto, this time signed the measure with a great deal of fanfare.

It turned out to be a classic lose-lose for Davis — courtesy of his fellow Democrats. His signing sparked no great rush of support to the governor’s cause among Latino voters, a sizeable minority of whom strongly opposed the bill. More important, it enraged large numbers of centrist and independent non-Latinos, who viewed it as a crass political sellout to the Latino leadership — and a disingenuous reversal for Davis.

Bruce Cain, the astute head of the Institute for Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, has said the pushers of this bill “bear substantial responsibility for the failing of the Democrats to hold onto the governor’s office.” That is hardly an overstatement. In fact, in focus groups conducted by the governor’s anti-recall campaign, the drivers’ license bill was cited nearly as often Davis’s tripling of the vehicle license fee as a reason voters were ready to string him up.

Now, in an almost breathtaking turn of events, Democratic legislators in both houses have voted overwhelmingly to repeal the bill in the face of adamant opposition by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and grass-roots efforts to place it on the March 2004 ballot for almost-certain rejection by voters. In the Senate, the repeal passed 33 to zip. The bill’s sponsor himself, now Sen. Cedillo, who had vociferously denounced Davis for vetoing the earlier incarnation, voted to yank his own creation — and appealed to fellow Democrats to do the same. The Assembly went along by the lopsided margin of 64-9.

This begs the obvious question: If Davis had beaten the recall, and demanded that the Legislature repeal the bill to avoid a public referendum, would the Democratic majority have complied with such alacrity and near-unanimity? Uh, don’t bet your life on it.

The message, I guess, to future Democratic governors is that a Democratic Legislature will bend over backwards to put you in a bind. With a Republican governor, they’ll just, well, bend over.

Davis certainly did himself no favors early on with his ill-advised dictum that Democratic legislators implement his vision. But, in the irony of all ironies, he just as certainly paid a heavy price at the end when he felt compelled to implement theirs.