10 years after recall, Gray Davis reflects and moves on

5:54 PM, Oct 7, 2013   |    comments
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For all of the accusations, the anger, and the shock of his final political campaign, Gray Davis can pretty much sum up the historic election that ended his career in just eight words.

"It took on a momentum of its own."

Ten years later, the former governor seems to have made peace with the tumultuous events that led to his ouster by voters on Oct. 7, 2003.  His removal from office remains the only recall ever of a California governor, only the second governor such defeat for a governor in U.S. history.

"Fate," he said in an exclusive News10 interview in the offices of his Los Angeles law firm, "plays a huge factor in politics."

Davis, 70, saw more victories than defeats in a political career than spanned three different decades. Once lauded for his deep resume, the moderate Democrat found that it became a liability in the winter of 2003.  That, plus a worsening economy and a massive state budget shortfall, helped ignite a recall campaign that saw him lose by 10 points on Election Day that fall.

He may have moved on, but Davis clearly hasn't forgotten.

"They were talking about a recall, like, two weeks after I was re-elected" in November 2002, he says.  "And at least, in their minds, this was a second bite at the apple."

Whether the unprecedented election would have ever happened without two events may never be known.  First, the big money contributed to pro-recall campaign by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista.

"Darrell Issa," says Davis, "was probably the person that gave it the financial momentum it needed at a critical point."

And then there was his administration's action on June 20, 2003 to reinstate the full annual vehicle license fee -- what became known on the 2003 campaign trail as the 'car tax.'

"I knew it would have political consequences," says the ex-governor. "

Davis felt he could make the case that the car tax hike was a one year deal, that voters would understand that the money went to local public safety services that the state had been reimbursing for five years.

But that hope proved fantasy once Arnold Schwarzenegger began staging events where a giant wrecking ball would crush an old auto spray-painted with the words 'car tax.'

"They said, 'Hasta la vista, baby," says Davis, borrowing Schwarzenegger's famous catchphrase.  "You gave us that money, we didn't tell you to give it to us. Once you give it to us, it's our money."

The defeated Democrat, elected four times to statewide office, quietly departed the political stage once Schwarzenegger was sworn in on Nov. 17, 2003.  He moved back to Los Angeles with his wife, Sharon, and took a job with the law firm Loeb & Loeb where he continues to use his impressive Rolodex to aid clients who may need to make important government connections.

And ... he's had some time to enjoy himself.

"Zip-lining in Puerto Rico, and swimming with the dolphins in the Caribbean," says Davis.  "You get to do all that cool stuff."

And he seems to enjoy his off-stage role of advising Democrats who ask for his help as well the occasional political effort with the likes of former Gov. Pete Wilson and Gov. George Deukmejian.

"You get knocked down sometimes," says Davis.  "And the question is, do you get back up and get back in the race?"

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.


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