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Jewish Journal

The First Jewish Governor?

by Joel Kotkin

March 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Gov. Gray Davis casts his ballot with his wife, Sharon, March 5 in Los Angeles. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Gov. Gray Davis casts his ballot with his wife, Sharon, March 5 in Los Angeles. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

For years he has been a presence in the Jewish community, listening, cajoling and, more than anything else, raising money. And today he is on the verge not only of winning re-election to the governor's mansion, but the beginnings of a political drive whose ultimate aim is the White House.

No, Gray Davis is not an Anglo marrano, a hidden, closeted Jew. He is, on paper, a Catholic, but his political career has been shaped, and largely financed -- as much as any statewide politician including our two Jewish women senators -- by the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Where did it all start? Carmen Warshaw, the former Democratic national committeewoman for California and major donor to Jewish causes, claims she first singled out the lean, ambitious young man more than three decades ago. From the beginning, she could see two overwhelming characteristics that define Davis to this day -- a driving, cold-blooded ambition and the calculating smarts to achieve it.

The Jewish community, Warshaw suggests, represented the primary vehicle for Davis' strategy. "His only interest was money," she recalls. "He played golf all the time at Hillcrest. You saw him all the time. He was known as the man who came to cocktails and didn't stay for dinner."

Davis' fixation on the Jewish community was a natural one, says one former top aide. As an aide to former Gov. Jerry Brown, Davis had been introduced to many of the major rainmakers of the Democratic Party, a considerable proportion of them Jews from the worlds of real estate, law and entertainment. When he finally won elective office, it was from a heavily Jewish Westside district that normally would send a landsman to Sacramento.

But, Davis made sure not to be stranger to the community. "Gray went to more bar mitzvahs and weddings than most rabbis," recalls this aide. "He didn't do it because he was Jewish -- he isn't -- but because that's where the money was."

And that's where much of Davis' money still is. In fact, much of that money has come to him even though Richard Riordan -- a man also popular with many Jews -- sought to take him on for governor. But with Riordan dispatched, victim of both his own political naiveté and Davis' brilliant ad barrage during the recent GOP primary, Davis will not have to fight this fall over Jewish contributors or support.

Against Bill Simon, a devotedly conservative Catholic with few links to the Jewish community, or much of anyone in California, we can expect it will be all Davis, all the time, this November. In boardrooms, country clubs and lavish living rooms across the Southland, Jewish hands will be writing many, many large checks for Davis, and in the process, creating the basis for a prospective presidential candidate.

Yet, how happy should Jews be with the man who is, in large part, their own adopted favorite son? Warshaw, for one, is terrified. Although she backed Davis early in his career, she now, like many other former and even present supporters, sees a man almost entirely consumed with ambition and all too little concerned with actually being a good or just governor. Not exactly the kind of leader the prophets of the Hebrew Bible would recommend.

"Don't ask me, I'll be vomiting," she half-joked when asked about how she felt about her former protégé's rise. "I am the one who put him into politics and I am now scared to death he could become president."

Somewhat less emotional, but no less perceptive, are the views of Brown, the man who first introduced Davis to real power. Now the highly successful mayor of Oakland, Brown sees Davis as the epitome of the ascendancy of "money politics" over the Democratic Party.

Once arguably the party interested in the working class and poor, Brown claims the Democrats, first under Bill Clinton and now Davis, are little more than a mirror image of the Republicans -- except for the religious right "Taliban" that Brown sees as increasingly dominating the GOP. "The Democrats have adapted the Republican ideas," Brown told me. "There's really not much for the Republicans to complain about."

Brown sees Davis' lack of any core beliefs as reflective of the "ideological pause" that characterizes the current era. Although class, race and environmental problems loom, Davis and other Democrats see no real percentage in tackling them head-on or with imagination. The key to success in politics now? "You have to have the money and not put your foot in your mouth," Brown observes. "It's pretty simple."

Given his track record, Davis, like Riordan, is unlikely to put his foot where it doesn't belong. A master of self-control, Davis will continue to gain support and raise gobs of money from unions, the business elite and, as usual, the Jewish community. Some, like Warshaw, may stay away, but Davis, like a hard-driving salesman, will simply find new "friends" willing to back his campaign, perhaps with the vague promise of some kind of influence.

Is this, as they say, good for the Jews? Well, Davis, as governor or maybe president, is likely to listen to Jewish concerns on Israel and other issues. But it also says perhaps something sad about our community that its new "best friend" is a man who is renown for his mastery of the minutiae of campaigning and his relative inattention to performing his job for the interest of the people, as so clearly displayed during last year's electricity crisis.

This well may be the end of the era in which Jews primarily support those -- like the late Pat Brown or Hubert Humphrey -- who took seriously the idea that the powerful should hope to help the powerless. Or that government should serve the hardworking middle-class life rather than just well-heeled special interests, government unions or well-connected developers.

Rather than "a light upon the nations," we may be becoming just like the gentiles, only richer and perhaps even more cynical. As we Jews become more entrenched in the establishment, we seem to have lost our passion for both justice and good government, preferring instead the comforting notion that the man in office is someone who we think "owes" us a favor.

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