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Governing the Golden State: An Interview with Former Governor Gray Davis

Gray Davis was born in 1942 to Doris Meyer and Joseph Graham Davis Sr., in the Bronx borough of New York City. After his family moved to the West Coast in the 1950s, Davis established himself in the state over the course of the succeeding decades: After graduating from Stanford University and Columbia Law School, Davis served in the Army prior to cementing himself as a fixture in public life in the state of California. Davis was Chief of Staff to former Governor Jerry Brown before his time in the legislature and as State Controller. He was elected to the governorship in 1998, and served until 2003. 

Sam Pumarejo: Can you tell me a little bit about your background in New York? I know you mentioned that you were from the Bronx originally.

Gray Davis: Yes, I was actually born in Columbia Hospital, and my family lived in the Bronx for three years, in Bronxville for about a year and a half, then Greenwich, Connecticut for about six months. Then, we moved out to California for about eight years, and we lived in West Los Angeles in the Brentwood area. 

SP: How did you end up in the military school you attended before entering the Army? 

GD: That was really not my choice. My parents sent me to what was then called Harvard Military School. It was a form of a prep school. You wore military uniforms to school. I think there was one class a week for an hour on military training, but aside from that, it was a normal school. It started, in my day, all six grades, seven through 12, were in the San Fernando Valley campus. In the 1990s, they merged with a women’s school, Westlake, which is in Holmby Hills that’s adjacent to Beverly Hills. So now, three grades are in West LA, and the other three grades are in the San Fernando Valley. 

SP: I’m very curious as to how you ended up in the Army. I understand you were a captain, is that correct? 

GD: Yes. So I think it all really started from going to what was then Harvard Military School and now Harvard-Westlake. I got used to wearing a uniform, and I was studying military training. There were no weapons; nothing was shot on campus. I think we had wooden rifles, but nothing worked. No shots were exchanged, no great secrets were shared with us. But I got used to the notion of service. When I went to Stanford. I enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) as a way to help to pay some of the tuition costs, and that obligated me to serve in the military for two years at some point subsequent to the end of my education, which was back in New York. I graduated from Stanford and went to Columbia Law School and graduated from there in June 1967 and obviously, we were in the middle of a war then. I enlisted way back in 1961. I had a commitment and less than one year of that I spent in Vietnam. 

SP: How did your experiences impact your understanding of the importance of public service? 

GD: I can’t say exactly how that happened, but it developed over the years. The first step was being in the military. That’s obviously a direct form of service. But I do remember the time when John Kennedy was assassinated. I was a sophomore or junior at Stanford. It was on a Saturday in November and the whole world seemed to stop for three days. We had no internet, we had no cell phones. So for three days on television, his whole life was played back and the impact he had, starting the Peace Corps and trying to put a man on the moon and his other stated goals. And that sort of got me interested in thinking more seriously about going into politics myself. 

SP: When did you first decide to run for elected office? I know you said that during your tenure as a student you started to think about it somewhat, but what influenced your first direct run for office? 

GD: I had to go back to Vietnam. I was in the Signal Corps, and my job was to be flown in a helicopter to division base camps at least four or five days a week to check in on radios. Keep in mind, I didn’t arrive in Vietnam until early December of 1968 and the Tet Offensive wasn’t until early in February, which was sort of a turning point in the war. And maybe the people on the ground were just trying to hold their ground and hope that some settlement would eventually lead to a cessation of hostilities.

The story coming out of Washington was that we were making progress. But when I was flying around, I got a different sense. We were just holding our ground and fending off occasional raids at the division level, but not advancing. And historically, the way you win a war is to destroy the enemy’s capacity for making war and making materials, whether it’s planes or tanks or weapons. And a lot of that was coming from China, and nobody seemed to have any interest in taking on China or even taking on North Vietnam, the perpetrator of the war. So that was the first time where I started realizing that not everything the government tells you is true. 

I also noticed that most of the people who were fighting this war were African American or Latino. So it just seemed like a disproportionate burden of that war fell on people of color and people who were poor or had fewer economic resources. And that didn’t seem right to me. So in one sense, I wanted to right that wrong.

And on my first campaign I worked for Tom Bradley, who was running for mayor of Los Angeles in 1973. He ran a very good campaign in 1973, and I got to drive him around to lots of places. He was a man of great dignity, a classmate of Jackie Robinson. He’d been a police officer for 20 years and on the city council for 12 years. And I was very impressed with him and wanted to do what I could to help advance his career. He ended up serving for 20 years. He was the first African American ever elected to be mayor of Los Angeles. 

SP: So coming into your tenure as governor of California, you established yourself as a very pragmatic and even-keeled negotiator. Was that something you developed or started developing while you were in school, or did it start later at the beginning of your political career? 

GD: I always saw myself as a problem solver. I had Republican parents. I always heard their point of view, and I would hear different points of view, and I always tried to see if there was a common ground or a place where we could all agree. If you were sitting next to me, I’d have you draw two circles, one overlapping the other a little bit. And that area where the overlap is, is the area of common ground. So whatever it is you agree on that, more money for education, protecting veterans, providing more health insurance, whatever it is that both sides agreed on or all negotiating parties, depending on how big the negotiation was, that is the area in which you can actually move forward and make progress and help the people you serve. Instead of just standing on your ground and yelling and pointing fingers of blame at the other party and then doing the same thing, which is kind of where we are right now. 

SP: Out of all the jobs you’ve had in public service to this point, which would you say was the most enjoyable for you and why?

GD: Oh, by far, governor, and you can talk to a lot of governors who subsequently were elected to the US Senate and virtually everyone will tell you their favorite job was being governor, because you have as governor the opportunity to respond to the immediate needs of your constituency. In health care, I think we enrolled nearly a million kids in some form of healthy families program or Medicaid expansion, far more than anyone else in the country. In education, we spent more money than ever. It was a 30 percent increase in my five years over what was the case. And we had all kinds of merit scholarships, college loans, also all historical highs. So as governor, you can really affect change that’s almost immediate. Again, in my day, no internet, no social media, no cell phone. And so one way to connect with parents is for the kids to see you a lot. I would go into a school at least once a week someplace in the state and spend at least an hour there. I’d answer questions and see how they were doing, usually elementary, middle school, sometimes high school. And so of all the things we did to help kids, I’ll just mention a couple. 

It initially started out as a 4 percent admission path [in terms of your class standing], but then it got amended I think up to 9 percent, maybe 10 percent. But we said if you’re in the top 4 percent in your class, whether it’s in Bakersfield or Fresno or Watts or Beverly Hills or Marin, you’re automatically enrolled in one of the University of California (UC) campuses. So there were then nine UC schools, now there are 10. And then you wouldn’t necessarily get into the exact one you wanted, but you were still admitted. Now, why was that important? Because very few of those schools offered the obligatory Advanced Placement courses that the UC system requires. This allowed parents to rally support in their communities up and down the state to have their school boards mandate that the schools in their district provide these Advanced Placement courses and thereby make at least 4 percent when we started, I think it’s now up to 9 percent, of every graduating class of every high school in their district eligible to go to a UC school. That was a huge breakthrough. We’ve added to that by saying that in addition, we will add merit scholarships and college loans.

I’ll tell another story. Maybe not quite as compelling as education, but about how you can have an impact. So in 2002, other states had adopted this Amber Alert system, but we were the first one to add what we call warning signs on the highway. All the overpasses had these electronic signs and we used them as a way to deliver a message through the amber alert. So if you were driving, they would give the license plate and the car, if they had it, and literally people would pull over about a mile or two down the road and let kids go. When I left office, we’d had an awful lot of people on the road we found without losing anyone. And when I came back for a speech that Governor Schwarzenegger invited me to attend, I sat next to the Commissioner of the Highway Patrol and I asked him how that Amber Alert was. He said, “Governor, we’ve saved 162 people and we have lost nobody.” 

Now, subsequently, those numbers have come down a little bit, but it’s still in the 75 percent or 80 percent range, which is just remarkable because I had something to do with missing children, with putting kids pictures on milk cartons. I started that as a volunteer way back in the 1980s. So I know the anguish and the anger that people have when they’re entitled to have a child and it’s stolen. Even if it’s stolen by a custodial parent, much less a stranger, very angry, very upset, not satisfied until their child comes back. So, just another example of how something that you do, one little additional amendment to the existing Amber Alert system, seemed to have such an enormous dividend in California that other states started to use it as well. So you just can’t get that immediate pay off. The flip side is still when they’re mad, you hear about it right away too. But the potential for doing good and getting positive feedback is very high if people like what you’re doing. 

SP: When you assumed the governorship, what were the top three or four problems that you considered to be the biggest ones facing the state of California? 

GD: Well, crime had been a very big issue in the 1990s. I was elected in 1998. We had the Hillside strangler case. A lot of these were in Southern California, where I live. We had a “Golden State Killer” that was recently stopped by using some of the DNA techniques that I put in as Governor. But that was both in Northern and Southern California. Way back during the Manson killings, that was in Southern California. These serial killers created a lot of crime and a lot of hysteria. Aggregate numbers have come down a little bit, but still the perception of crime is still high. It was even higher then. And in part because of my military background, I had always felt that the death penalty, in egregious situations, was a tool that prosecutors and jurors and public defenders should have. They can reject it or modify it. But at the time, it was uppermost in people’s minds.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, California really had reached its peak in terms of social media and technology. We were just on the verge of that, and they worked very hard with Silicon Valley. Matter of fact, there was no Apple phone then, there was no Facebook and no Twitter, nothing. Google was being incorporated in 1998. 

A lot of that stuff I helped facilitate in the first five to 10 years. I signed the electronic signature bill, I allowed anyone, whether it was the motion picture industry or other industry, that wanted to educate their workers to count it as a deductible expense. So I tried to find ways to help industries in specific areas through tax reduction to encourage, in that case, more education, greater skill sets. Helping to usher California into a new age was exciting because there were no rules, no road map as to how to do it. 

Crime was a big thing and healthcare was a big thing, because we had Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) making decisions that denied people coverage, and I passed a law creating a new department called the Department of Managed Care whose whole job was to be an advocate for the patient. They’d sign you on a third of the time, but 31 percent of the time, they would convince the HMO to change its mind, which was life changing for the patient—and the family the patient belonged to—and set a precedent for any future cases that came along with that health plan. Those are some of the issues we were focused on.

SP: Can you describe the complications of maximizing your success as a governor as far as your agenda goes? Does the full time legislature make it harder to negotiate come election time? 

GD: Well, first of all, that’s not going to change in California, but I don’t really know what is best. My sense is that a full time legislature, but one that only works six months a year, would be more than sufficient. The first two or three months of the new session, not much happens. And you can always extend it. So, I’m alright with a full time session, but I just think being around from January to September, September 15th on odd numbered years and August 31st in even numbered years, that’s a bit much. You can probably knock off a month or two of that easily. Just because nothing happens. I mean, you’re just waiting for bills to be introduced, waiting for deadlines to occur. I don’t think too much happens. I mean, sure, in an emergency something happens, but without an emergency, not much happens before March, really late March. 

SP: Can you tell me about the political dynamics in California, if they made negotiation with the legislature easier or harder? That goes for budgetary negotiations and legislation outside the budget. And how so? How did it impact negotiation? 

GD: So until 2010, every governor had to get a two-thirds vote for his or her budget. Even a budget that didn’t have a tax increase, and I think only Arkansas, and I want to say Maine or Vermont, had that requirement. But that actually turned out to have some benefits, because in my day the Republican and Democratic parties were pretty evenly divided. The Democrats might have had a million more voters than Republicans but now they have six million more in the 20 years since I’ve gone. So, we would sit down in the budget and find a way, just like I said, I had to make the assembly and the Republican leaders give me a list of three or four things, and then I find one of those things on the list that I can convince my Democratic friends that we can get behind. And that’s how budget issues got resolved. On legislation, you only need a majority vote unless the legislation included spending, then you needed a two-thirds vote. So, the fact that you needed a two-thirds vote made it very difficult in my day for a spending measure to accept the budget, to pass. We had maybe five, six, seven more Democrats than Republicans in the assembly, maybe two or three or four in the Senate, which only had 40 people, but nobody had anywhere near two-thirds. 

I actually thought that was a good thing. And then an initiative was put on the ballot, a combination of, I think it was the county chamber or and maybe the unions, said, we’re gonna reduce the threshold to pass the budget to 50 percent, but if the budget is late, for every day it’s late, the legislature loses a day’s pay. So that passed like a knife through hot butter. But what it did is basically put the minority party out of business. So they had no purpose anymore. In retrospect, I think that led to a certain estrangement between the parties. At the time, I thought that it was a good idea, but now I do not think it is a good idea. Because I think engaging everybody, giving them a role, letting them know that they can influence the process—because they were elected too—is important. The fact that there are more Democrats than Republicans doesn’t mean they didn’t have to go through the same process to be elected a legislator. They’re entitled to respect. They’re entitled to have their day. 

So I regret the fact that we’ve gone from a two-thirds vote, which was onerous but achievable, to a majority vote for a budget, which is easily achievable. As a result,  there are fewer checks and balances. I am sure people on the progressive side of my party would be pulling their hair out as they hear me talking this way, but I’m the Governor. I’ve actually seen both policies in action. I think as difficult as that initial hurdle of passing the budget was, it gave everyone a role, everyone a purpose, and at the end of the day, everyone felt they came home with something. 

SP: How would you describe the shifts in interactions between the different parties in Congress and the White House? And what about regular people who belong to the parties and how they interact with each other? How have you  seen that change over the course of the past 15 years? 

GD: The answer is, they do not interact. They do not interact. There used to be all kinds of social gatherings where people would have dinner together or have lunch together or breakfast together or work out at the gym together, there’s still a little bit of that. But if you’re seen talking to a member of the other party, you’re immediately a suspect. They’ll put you on probation. I’m just kidding here. 

And that’s not good. No party has a monopoly on good ideas. There were some very good ideas that I took from Republican leaders and there is one I’m going to share with you. One involved increasing the research and development credit in California from 12 percent to 15 percent. And the person who wanted to do it, wanted to do it as a standalone bill. I told him all the reasons that wouldn’t happen. But if you could get the minority leader of the assembly to put it on a list of three, I might be able to get that passed, because a lot of the Democratic Assembly members represented San Jose, the Peninsula and down to San Jose over the East Bay. It turned out it did. And this is not a direct result of that, but something I’m very proud of is how many patents California produces. So, in 2001, General Patent put out the following statistics; California got 44,000 patents. The next state was Texas, who got 12,000. 

And if there’s one thing that’s important to America long term, it’s the ability to innovate. We’ll never be the lowest manufacturing state, we’ll never be the lowest cost country, but we can be the engine of innovation and effectively change the rules going forward through innovation.

SP: So, in terms of solutions to one day bringing back that interaction that there’s such a lack of, what do you think are the tactics that could be employed at the state level in California, and the national level by the White House to kind of encourage better practices? 

GD: Ultimately, the voters will send a message that they want more interaction. I mean, this election defied expectations. People thought it was a real long shot that we would hold the Senate. I kept telling everyone, and Nick can tell you this, that we had at least an even shot of holding the Senate, because I thought we had better candidates. But even the House, maybe the Republicans will get three or four or five more than they need of 218, but it’s not the blow out that they were talking about. So, a couple more of those kinds of elections, and I think people will begin to realize that the voters want them to work collaboratively, come up with the best solution, whether it’s a Republican idea or a Democratic idea, or from an Independent, it doesn’t matter, if it works for America. 

And Ronald Reagan totally understood that. He used to have Tip O’Neill over for a drink at five o’clock every Wednesday. I mean, the legislature went into session, and Washington’s only there from Monday night until Thursday night. So you’ve only got about three nights you can do this, and they did it every week. So, it was good enough for a pretty famous Republican president. Maybe some of the current members of that party will understand the value to them and their constituents of interacting and hearing out the other side. Not agreeing with them when you don’t agree, but just hearing them out. Don’t pretend they don’t exist, and certainly don’t demonize them. 

I love Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was speaking way back in Charlotte during part of Obama’s running for second term, and he said, “Where I come from, we treat everybody honorably. Senator X over there, he’s an honorable man, he’s a family man, he keeps his word, he’s trustworthy, but he just happens to believe that we should eliminate Medicare and eliminate Medicaid. And my candidate over here, Nick Warshaw, he’s an honorable man, he’s a family man, but he believes in keeping Medicare and Medicaid. So, you just decide whose ideas you like the best.”

In other words, he made a contest of ideas without demonizing the other party. The other party is not evil. I think that struck me as a more persuasive way to proceed. And most other people just say, “The other side, they’re terrible people.” No, some of the people are terrible, but the whole party is not terrible. And I’m sure they can say some of the people in our party are terrible. But the whole party’s not terrible on our side either. 

SP: At any point during your tenure as governor, did you consider a national run? Did that ever cross your mind? 

GD: You’re not gonna believe my answer: no. 

SP: Really? 

GD: You can say I never had one conversation with my wife about it. No sitting California governor has ever been elected President. And you asked an operative question earlier on about the importance or the impact of having a full time legislature. You know, granted, they start slowly, but by March, they want the governor’s position on this bill and that bill. They put in about 3,000 bills. Now, about 30 percent of them passed. And probably 80 percent of those, maybe a little higher, get signed into law. But all that requires a lot of time and energy by the executor. Very hard to run for office, which is essentially, to run for the president, a full time job. 

Anyway, there’s a conference every year, sometimes in Mexico and sometimes in the US So George Bush is there, and the Governor of Arizona is here, the Governor of New Mexico. I said to George Bush, he was about to become the nominee of this party, and he was running for president in November. I said, “It was awfully nice of you to make time. I mean, you have a legislature and you’re running for president.” He says, “Well, my legislature doesn’t meet this year. It only meets on odd numbered years and only for 30 days, unless we want to extend it because of an emergency or a special session.”

SP: I’d like to ask you about young people right now who are interested in one day running for elected office or getting into some sort of public service. What would you advise to those who are interested in engaging in the same things and want to do something to address the type of animosity that we’re seeing across the political spectrum right now and might be interested in following in your footsteps in some way? 

GD: I would encourage every young person who is considering public service to try that, to get involved. I mean, there’s all kinds of programs. They have youth legislators, in California, they have something called the Coro Program. It trains you for politics, and you spend about six months per year doing so. You spend three months in Sacramento, three months in Washington, three months at City Hall, and you’re paid a stipend during all this time. Groups like the RAND Corporation, Public Policy Institute, all these entities have training programs to train young people for some form of political endeavor. It doesn’t have to mean a run for office, but it obviously includes that. But if you want to work in the legislature, work in Congress, work at a public policy institute, which there are many on the Right and the Left, that’s a noble career. 

Now, having said that, it’s harder now than it ever was in the past. We’re talking about the hope that the voters will bring the extremists on the right and on the left back to their senses and act in a way that we used to do in a bipartisan fashion in this country. And I believe that that can and will happen. So in the short term, it will be more difficult, more challenging, and people will call you names. There will be some unpleasant aspects of it, but if you’re tough enough to just fight your way through all that, I think you’ll find it to be a very rewarding path if you go into some form of public service.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.