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Davis: A shining resume, a resounding defeat

Gray Davis has an impressive resume, but couldn't muster voters' support and lost the governor's mansion in Tuesday's recall election.
Gray Davis has an impressive resume, but couldn't muster voters' support and lost the governor's mansion in Tuesday's recall election.

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(CNN) -- California Gov. Gray Davis has a resume that looks like a politician's dream, but a combination of pitfalls beginning in 2000 led to his defeat in Tuesday's recall election.

In 1998, Davis was elected the Golden State's first Democratic governor in 16 years. The San Jose Mercury News called him "perhaps the best-trained governor-in-waiting California has ever produced."

Voter anger about the state's budget shortfalls, a sagging economy and accusations that he did little to fix California's electricity crisis in 2000 all contributed to a successful petition campaign that led to the special election. (Davis concedes defeat; Transcript: Davis concession)

Davis' resume highlights many of the touchstones traditionally sought by aspiring politicians, including a distinguished education, decorated military war service and a well-rounded experience serving in government.

But resumes are made of paper, and critics have said Davis could have accomplished more without what some critics have called an off-putting manner and social awkwardness.

Key state Democrats and recall opponents, including San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, state Senate Pro Tem John Burton and state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, have criticized Davis for an "off-putting and mercenary style that prevented Davis from bonding with voters or politicians," according to an August profile of the governor published by The Sacramento Bee.

"Gray doesn't have any friends," Lockyer told the newspaper. "It's a Shakespearean tragedy in a way."

Davis' wife -- former airline attendant Sharon Davis -- told the Bee that she knows the real Gray Davis, describing him as "warm and generous and kind."

"He laughs easily," she said. "He is just extraordinarily disciplined."

First of five

Joseph Graham "Gray" Davis Jr. was born in the Bronx, New York, the day after Christmas, 1942. He was the first of the family's five children: three boys and two girls. He was raised a Roman Catholic.

Davis' family moved to California in 1954. His education included experience at public, private and Catholic schools, allowing him -- as an adult -- an opportunity to compare all three systems later as a lawmaker.

"I ran for governor because of my passion for education," Davis told CNN the Sunday night before the recall election on "Larry King Live."

In fact, Davis' first official act as governor was to call a special session of the state legislature to address his plan for all California children to be able to read by age 9.

School and war

After Davis entered Stanford University, his father left the family, forcing Davis to join the ROTC to stay in school. The deal included a promise to enter the regular Army after completing his education.

He earned a history degree with distinction in 1964, finished Columbia law school in 1967 and served in the Army at the height of the Vietnam War.

Davis served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, returning home as a captain with a Bronze Star for meritorious service.

"I was in the combat arms, the Signal Corps," Davis said in the Larry King interview. "But my primary job was to make sure the tactical radios, we called them SGRs, worked."

Friends who knew him at the time said Davis -- like many war veterans -- came back a changed man, interested in politics and more intense, according to the Bee.

Entering politics

As Davis began his political career in the 1970s, he started a statewide neighborhood crime watch program while serving as chairman of the California Council on Criminal Justice.

Gray Davis with wife, Sharon, on the campaign plane. Davis credits his wife for a rejuvenation of faith.
Gray Davis with wife, Sharon, on the campaign plane. Davis credits his wife for a rejuvenation of faith.

His initial political experience included working to help Tom Bradley win election as Los Angeles' first black mayor in 1973. But Davis was unsuccessful in his own campaign for state treasurer in 1974.

The future governor vaulted into the state's political big leagues in 1975, when he was chosen chief of staff for Gov. Edmund "Jerry" Brown Jr. -- whose liberal and unique ideas prompted comedians to nickname him "Governor Moonbeam." Davis was not as liberal as Brown, and some said he offset Brown's style by projecting a more intense, controlled personality.

After working for the governor, Davis served in the state Assembly from 1983 to 1987, representing Los Angeles County and championing a popular campaign to help find missing children by placing their pictures on milk cartons.

Davis' election as state controller in 1986 marked his first statewide victory at the polls. Davis moved up another political rung in 1994, when he was elected lieutenant governor.

From highs to lows

Davis rolled an orange down the aisle of his plane on Monday.  When the orange rolled neatly into a bag, the governor said it was a good omen.
Davis rolled an orange down the aisle of his plane on Monday. When the orange rolled neatly into a bag, the governor said it was a good omen.

When he first ran for governor in 1998, Davis campaigned as a centrist and won with 58 percent of the vote. As the high-tech boom of the era fueled state coffers, Davis pushed his education agenda, funneling billions of dollars into programs aimed at raising grades at public schools and making class sizes smaller.

"We have put $13 billion more in education funding than the law requires and we spent a lot of it on teacher training, more technology," Davis told CNN. "We've doubled the number of computers, and we spent almost $2 billion on textbooks."

But happy days ended in mid-June of 2000. That's when it became clear that power utilities couldn't pay the hundreds of millions of dollars owed to wholesalers for providing extra power during peak periods. As debts grew higher, wholesalers stopped selling electricity to the state's utilities.

To avoid uncontrolled statewide blackouts, officials ordered moving, regional power outages -- so-called rolling blackouts -- the largest planned blackouts since World War II. (Full story)

"I did not communicate clearly what was happening, and I took too long to act," Davis acknowledged during the interview with King.

Voter discontent with Davis grew from that point, as other issues chipped away at his approval rating. Later, a $38 billion projected state budget shortfall led to a successful petition campaign to force a recall election.

"It's important to remember there were many factors contributing to the budget and energy problems over which he had no control," former state Senate staffer Tim Hodson, of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, told the Bee.


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