April 17, 2021

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A Conversation With Gray Davis – The New York Times

7 min read

Good morning.

This evening, Gov. Gavin Newsom is set to give his State of the State address from a nearly empty Dodger Stadium.

The speech, he hinted on Monday, will be a moment to recognize the “bright light” at the end of the tunnel.

“We are very close to turning a proverbial page,” the governor said, speaking at a news conference in Tulare County, part of his tour highlighting efforts to bring vaccines to California communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

Nearly two decades ago, another governor spoke to a California enveloped in crisis — much of it stemming from another national trauma. But on Jan. 8, 2003, as Gray Davis, the governor at the time, gave what would be his last State of the State address, the path was less clear through a painful recession in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and fixes for recent catastrophic failures in the state’s energy system had been obscure.

“Those were much different circumstances,” Mr. Davis told me last week, speaking by Zoom from his Los Angeles condo. “In this case, everyone understands there’s a pandemic.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Newsom is facing the prospect of becoming only the second governor in California’s history to be removed from office by voters.

Mr. Davis was the first. So I asked him to reflect on the pandemic, Mr. Newsom’s performance and what it’s like to be recalled — then replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity:

Hi Governor Davis, thanks so much for taking the time to talk. So you’re at your condo in Westwood, I hear?

Yes, I can show you! (He turns the camera to show a cluster of office towers in the near distance outside the high-rise window.) You see those buildings? That’s where I work. So I have a relatively short commute.

Have you been going into the office?

No, they keep pushing back the date we’ll reopen. But I think President Biden’s announcement that there should be enough vaccine by the end of May as opposed to the end of July may spur businesses to open a little earlier than they were planning.

I mean, it’s amazing what adults in the room can do. Trump had 400 million vaccine doses. But he kind of dumped them on states, and said, “That’s your problem now.”

So it’s been good that Biden has been working with Gavin on setting up vaccination sites in Oakland and Cal State L.A. Their interests are aligned.

What about everything before that? Do you think that criticisms of Governor Newsom — for abruptly changing directions and confusing messaging around restrictions, for example, or his French Laundry dinner — have been unfair?

The simple answer is I really believe he’s done a very good job under very trying circumstances. I can’t remember a governor since World War II who’s had so many things to deal with at the same time.

The pandemic, keeping people alive, shutting down the economy to do that, wildfires, social unrest — there was no precedent to point to. There have been some midcourse corrections but at the end of the day, people understand we are essentially in a war.

So given that, you just have to look at the numbers. Most states have lost more lives per capita.

The governor is seeing a credible recall effort. I have to ask how you think this moment compares with 2003 and your experience being recalled. Do you think political division is more intense now?

Yeah, it’s hard to know when it started. In my day, looking across lines was seen as an act of courage. Now, it’s just the opposite.

I hope that changes because our officials are working for us. And I think this recall project is no more than an expensive vanity project pushed largely by political consultants who want to get another job.

Californians want their governor to spend all his time making sure they can get their jobs back, they can pay their rents, their kids can go to school — things people want.

There is an absolute right to put a recall on the ballot, but it is clearly not the right time to do it in California.

[Read more about the recall process in California.]

What is it like, day to day, to govern during a major national crisis? Although we certainly had some big challenges, Governor Newsom started his term with relative stability. That has obviously changed.

Every governor comes into office with an agenda in his or her mind, and they want to implement those ideas. Then, sort of out of the blue comes this humongous problem. You kind of have to drop everything you campaigned on and solve that problem.

We reduced class sizes, produced more scholarships. But it was not important when the energy crisis was happening.

So you have to have the discipline to say: “OK, I ran on all these things. I’d like to get back to them, but I can’t get back to that until I solve this overriding problem.”

The good news for Gavin Newsom is that all 50 states have this problem.

I’ve heard you were known for being gracious and helpful to your successor as you exited office. Do you recall what you were thinking at the time or why you took that approach?

I will tell you this: I was raised to be kind of stoic. Life is what it is. When I was running for office in 1998, we had an open primary and nobody thought I could win. We ended up winning by 20 points.

Then a recall at the end of the process also didn’t seem fair. But it’s part of the process. Californians for over 100 years have had the right to initiate a recall election. It’s a contact sport. If you don’t like it, run in some other state or find another profession. If you lose the recall, part of your job is to help the next governor.

Arnold Schwarzenegger — we actually have a pretty good relationship, and it’s in part because we worked closely on the transition. We see each other. We keep in touch.

[Read The Los Angeles Times’s editorial board’s appraisal of Mr. Davis’s recall a decade later.]

Do you have any advice for Governor Newsom as he confronts a similar prospect? Is there anything you think he should say in the State of the State to communicate with Californians?

At this point in time, there is one job, which is to win this war.

So right now, he’s doing exactly what he should be doing in terms of vaccines. I would assume the State of the State would focus on that, and focus on the good news that’s going to happen as businesses reopen, people get back to work and schools reopen.

I’ve often said politicians get too much credit in good times and too much blame in bad times. People in the state have to feel they’re doing well. I believe by this summer they will have survived this nightmare and feel much better about their future.

Time really is on Gavin Newsom’s side. But if the election were held today, he would still win, because the state is much more Democratic than it was in 2003.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)


  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that vaccinated Americans may gather indoors in small groups. But they should still wear masks and practice social distancing in public. [The New York Times]

  • The Los Angeles County school district is probably a month or more from resuming in-person learning. But with the spring term scheduled to end on June 11, families are coming to terms with the reality that very little of the school year is likely to take place face-to-face. [The New York Times]

  • Want to get the vaccine? A new statewide program called My Turn Volunteer enlists people to lend a hand at vaccine sites, who may become eligible for a shot. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • Petaluma is thought to be the first city in the country to ban the construction of new gas stations. Other cities are looking to it as a model. [Petaluma Argus-Courier]

Read more about whether America’s infrastructure is ready for a transition to electric vehicles. [The New York Times]

  • The Producer’s Guild of America announced the nominations for the Producers Guild Awards, typically a preview of what to expect from the Academy Awards. [The New York Times]

  • Amanda Gorman, the Angeleno who delivered a stirring poem at President Biden’s inauguration in January, said that a security guard followed her home last week and told her she looked suspicious. [The New York Times]

  • Vice President Kamala Harris’s childhood home in Berkeley may become a historic landmark. This week, city officials will discuss giving the pale yellow duplex landmark status. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

    — Compiled by Jonathan Wolfe


A note: Yesterday’s newsletter incorrectly explained the state’s vaccine equity thresholds for reopening as being based on the number of vaccine doses administered to residents of vulnerable communities in a given county. It’s the number of vaccine doses administered to residents of vulnerable communities across the state. It’s been updated here.


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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