Joseph Graham Davis, Jr. (born December 26, 1942), best known as Gray Davis, is an American politician who served as the 37th Governor of California from 1999 to 2003. He was re-elected to a second term in 2002, but on October 7, 2003, he became the second governor to be recalled in American history. He was succeeded by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger on November 17, 2003 (see 2003 California recall). He is a member of the Democratic Party.
Born in New York City, Davis moved to California with his family as a child in 1954. He earned a degree in history at Stanford University in 1964, then returned to New York to attend Columbia University law school. After completing the program in 1967 he entered active duty in the United States Army, serving in the Vietnam War until 1969.
Davis returned to California and entered politics, serving as Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff to Governor Jerry Brown from 1974 to 1981, as Assemblyman from the 43rd district (Los Angeles County) from 1983 to 1987, then as State Controller until 1995. He was Lieutenant Governor until 1999, after winning the 1998 election for Governor with 57.97% of the vote, defeating Republican Dan Lungren who had 38.4%.
With his political successes, he was strongly viewed as a possible Democratic candidate for President in either 2000 or 2004. The energy crisis of 2001 and budget deficit of 2003 have sharply hurt his reputation, and any talk of Presidential candidacy has completely evaporated.
His early administration focused on balancing the state budget and education reform. An electricity shortage and rolling blackouts in the summer of 2001 contributed to massive state debt — and widespread grumbling about Davis' administration — as California chose to negotiate unfavorable long-term contracts with power suppliers in neighboring states. Few other solutions were available to the state during the blackouts other than to let electricity rates continue to rise. In areas where this occurred consumer electricity rates rose up to 300%. To his credit though, the Davis administration licensed the first power plant construction in 12 years in April 1999 shortly after assuming office. That plant came online in June 2001.
Davis's popularity recovered somewhat months later as the crisis subsided and popular blame for the shortage was assigned in part to alleged market manipulation by companies such as Enron, though his buckling to the resultant price-gouging remained a negative factor in his 2002 re-election bid. Davis was also criticized for continuing to raise spending in the state budget while revenues were dropping.
During the 2002 election campaign, Davis took the unusual step of taking out campaign ads during the Republican primaries questioning the conservative credentials of Los Angeles mayor, Richard Riordan. Davis knew that, as a moderate, Riordan would be a more formidable challenger in the general election than a conservative candidate, and sought to eliminate him in the primaries. The ads pointed out that Riordan held positions on issues such as gun control and abortion that were similar to Davis's.
This strategy succeeded, and Davis was re-elected in November 2002 following a long and bitter campaign against Republican candidate Bill Simon, marked by accusations of ethical lapses on both sides and widespread voter apathy. He gained re-election with 47.4% of the vote to Simon's 42.4%.
Job approval history
Just after Davis entered office he enjoyed a 54% approval rating and just 15% disapproval (in March 1999). His numbers peaked in February 2000 with 62% approval and 20% disapproval, coinciding with the peak of the dot-com boom in California. By January 2001, his numbers continued well, but slipped slightly with 57% approval, 34% disapproval. In May 2001, at the start of the energy crisis, his numbers plunged to 36% approval, 55% disapproval. His numbers recovered slightly over the next year, peaking again in July 2002, this time with 41% approval, 49% disapproval. His numbers remained fairly flat until April 2003 when he had only 24% approval, 65% disapproval. (All data taken from the California Field Poll.)
On April 14, 2003, the California Field Poll reported that Davis had a record-low job approval rating of just 24%, the lowest ever recorded in the 55 years of the poll. Voters cited disapproval of the state's record $34.6 billion budget shortfall, growing unemployment, and dubious campaign contributor connections. Davis has tried to maintain a middle-of-the-road approach, but he has ultimately alienated many of the state's liberals who view him as too conservative, and many conservatives who view him as too liberal. Many were upset that in trying to balance the budget, Davis cut spending for schools while increasing spending for prisons. Many attributed the proposal to the prison guard union's generous donations to Davis' re-election campaign. Californians were also upset that he did not announce the record budget deficit until after his re-election. Some critics accused Davis of overstating the budget deficit, so he could cut spending and raise taxes beyond what was necessary and then claim victory as California's savior when the deficit clears up.
California Governor-Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, George W. Bush, and California Governor Gray Davis speak to firefighters on November 4, 2003
In July 2003 his unpopularity became so great that a campaign to gather a sufficient number of citizen signatures for a recall election of Davis was successful. This constituted the first gubernatorial recall in Californian history, and only the second in U.S. history. The first occurred in North Dakota in 1921. While other California governors, including Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, and Pete Wilson, had faced recall attempts, none of those attempts were successful at forcing a recall election. The recall of Davis was successful at forcing a special election and also at making Davis the first governor in California history to be recalled. On October 7, 2003, Davis was recalled with 55.4% of the votes in favoring of the recall, and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to replace him as governor.