The Race for Governor

The day after taking office, California’s new governor will assume at least two key roles: He will become the state’s chief political figure, and, immediately thereafter, he will be placed (by the press) on the short list of presidential hopefuls. It worked that way for Ronald Reagan (who famously made the leap from Sacramento to Washington) as well as for Jerry Brown and Pete Wilson (whose presidential bids were foiled before they could take hold). And, most recently, columnist George Will anointed Republican candidate Dan Lungren as a leading presidential figure, if and when he wins the governorship this November.

The parties’ fascination with the California governor lies, in part, in the promise of all those electoral votes and, in part, in the prospect of all that California money.

So we know the stakes are high — even more so this year, given that the governor and the legislature will have a strong say in the reapportionment which is scheduled for the year 2000. Political control over those redrawn districts could push about 10 congressional seats into the lap of either the Republicans or the Democrats. As a result, our local campaign for governor is actually a national race as well.

Given this potential for the national limelight, it seems almost startling that the political struggle for the governorship has, at times, been invisible. We know that one of the reasons for the scant coverage has been the continuous splash of news about Lewinsky and Co., and that another has been the sudden thump of bank and financial failures abroad, with their subsequent effect on the stock market here.

But it also needs to be stated that Davis and Lungren have been less-than-compelling political leaders. (See the story inside on Green Party candidate Dan Hamburg on page 12.) Not that they are political novices. Davis has a political resumé that reaches back nearly 25 years: He was chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown from 1974 to 1982; assemblyman, 1982 to 1986; state controller, 1986 to 1994; and has served as our lieutenant governor since 1994.

Lungren has an equally impressive political history. He served in Congress from 1978 until 1987, when he resigned abruptly, and has been the state’s attorney general since he was elected in 1990. His reputation, for better or ill, is based on his avid enforcement of the “three-strike” law.

However, the experience of both men has not translated into what we might describe as political appeal. Or daring leadership. Or a public personality that has attracted large numbers of voters. Gray Davis, the Democrat, has been cautious, bland, boring in most of his public appearances, while the GOP’s Dan Lungren has been phlegmatic, predictable, unyieldingly conservative.

Lungren has exhibited more warmth and personality than his opponent, but he has also been trapped by his stand on issues: He firmly opposes abortion (which has alienated many women voters), endorses school vouchers (which has put off many teachers and Jewish voters, though not most Orthodox Jews), and is steadfast in his rejection of a ban on assault weapons (which won a repudiation from Mayor Richard Riordan).

Lungren’s strength and weakness are one and the same: He often aligns himself with corporations and big business (particularly agribusiness), is stern on law and order, and, at times, is critical of union officials and environmentalists. When he appeared this week at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, the Los Angeles Times reported, he was silent on the murders of two victims of intolerance — Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student, and Dr. Barnett Slepian, the Buffalo obstetrician, both of whom have dominated recent news. Conservatives who already back him believe he is their candidate. They know where he stands. They probably will turn out en masse to vote for him.

But there is also a problem: According to most polls, he has not made the necessary inroads on the state’s moderate Republicans, or on the swing independents. This suggests that conservative Republicans will turn out to vote for Lungren, but large numbers of other voters will not. Thus far, they have not been drawn to his personality or to his stand on most issues. Since Democrats outnumber Republicans in this state by about 8 percent, Lungren remains behind in the polls by about that number.

If one telling charge could be leveled against Davis, it would be that he reveals not a scintilla of charisma. The question is, Even though the Democrats agree with him on many of the issues, will they be motivated to come out to vote for gray Gray Davis?

Naysayers point to criticism within and outside the party: That Davis is a man without beliefs or commitment, who excels at one thing alone — namely, raising money. That’s wonderful for campaigning in California, they say, but it does not necessarily lead the uncommitted to vote, especially when the candidate himself is uninspiring.

All of which leads back to party loyalty and Davis’ stand on key issues: He has been constant in his support of environmental causes; unwavering in his backing of unions, particularly public employee unions; and very much behind the pro-choice movement, the last of which has earned him praise from the National Organization of Women. He is also endorsed by Americans for Democratic Action, who were pleased, among other things, when he opposed giving lie-detector tests to state and local employees.

Safe and pallid though he may be in his public appearances, these positions have given him an edge, in numbers at least, in the current race. The trick now is to persuade supporters to vote, when the candidate is neither a fiery speaker nor a dazzling personality.

This race for governor has not been gripping, but, as we move into the final weekend, the polls show Davis still holding his party affiliation lead of about 8 percent. But you as voter should be aware that, on Election Day, prediction counts for little, turnout for everything. — Gene Lichtenstein