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Jewish World Review August 28, 2003 / 30 Menachem-Av, 5763

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Davis is a uniter, alright — everybody hates him | SAN FRANCISCO Gov. Gray Davis is a unifying force in California politics: Everybody hates him.

That joke, like most jokes, is an exaggeration, but it has an element of truth. Davis, re-elected to a second term last November, not only has very low approval ratings here, but voters will decide on Oct. 7 whether to recall him from office.

This would be the first recall of a governor in California history, but as Davis warns people, if he is recalled, it might happen again and again.

That is because under California's recall law a governor can be tossed from office without having done anything wrong. Malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance in office is not required. All you need do is get enough signatures on a petition to have a vote and then a simple majority in a special election to oust the person.

(By way of contrast, in Minnesota, the State Supreme Court must certify that a governor has done something wrong before he can be recalled.)

Other California governors have faced recall petition drives — most notably Ronald Reagan — but no governor has ever faced an actual recall vote before.

Why Davis? Especially considering he is a liberal Democrat in a liberal Democratic state? One big reason is his public persona.

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I am not saying he is the worst politician I have ever seen, but he may be the worst successful politician I have ever seen: He is stiff to the point of being robotic. He seems to have no public skills whatsoever. He does not connect with his audiences or even with people in his immediate vicinity on stage.

I watched him at a raucous labor rally in Manhattan Beach, south of Los Angeles, on Tuesday, and as delegates to the California Labor Federation yelled, shouted and chanted on his behalf, he stood stiffly with a fixed wooden smile on his face, weakly pawing the air with his fist. He looked like he was approximating emotion rather than really feeling any. I did not see him shake a single hand.

Later that day, Davis flew to San Francisco for a town hall meeting, one of several he is doing. The questions directed to Davis from ordinary citizens ranged from irritated to angry and had a single theme: Why won't you admit you made any mistakes? Why won't you take any blame? Why do you keep blaming everybody else?

People want a mea culpa from Davis. Instead, they get a they-a culpa: Everybody is to blame but him.

The state's energy crisis? The evil power companies did it.

The state's fiscal crisis? The collapse of the dot-coms and the national economy did it.

The huge increase in the state vehicle tax? His Republican predecessor made it happen.

There is an element of truth in all the replies Davis gave, but he gave them in such a smug way as to infuriate, rather than satisfy, his audiences.

The moderator of the town hall confronted Davis with a quotation from Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco, who is supporting Davis in the recall. "He doesn't make friends," Brown said of Davis. "I don't know a lot of people who want to have dinner with Gray."

Davis responded by saying — somewhat off the subject — that "My wife, Sharon, brought me back to G-d."

Then, to the subject, Davis said: "Am I Bill Clinton? No, I'm not. I grew up in the '50s, when they taught you to keep feelings to yourself. Now, we're in a world of Oprah and Jerry Springer."

Which may actually go to the heart of Davis' problem: Unlike his political hero, Bill Clinton, he cannot share his inner feelings (real or manufactured) with the public in an effort to bond with them.

And yet, it must be kept in mind that Davis did win election and re-election to the governorship. And while he did it by vilifying his opponents — hard to do in a recall when essentially his chief opponent is himself — several million people in this state have cast votes for Gray Davis.

Will they go back to the polls on Oct. 7 and cast a vote to save him?

One poll has the recall election close, but another has Davis losing overwhelmingly. And the possibility of actually being thrown out of office seems finally to have gotten through to him.

"I'm like a baseball manager," Davis said. "If the team loses, you take the blame, and sometimes, you have to say goodbye."

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate