Zealously tapping into a giant gusher of campaign cash, the Democratic governor of California has raised so much money in his first nine months in office that he has as much in the bank, if not more, than leading presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley.
The huge war chest being assembled by Gov. Gray Davis points to the tremendous costs of running for office in California--where gubernatorial or presidential candidates could spend $5 million a week on TV ads--as well as the troubling need, for some, to raise so much money to be considered competitive in the nation's most populous state.
Davis has $10.7 million on hand, his campaign reported. At the end of September, the close of 1999's third quarter, Bradley had $10.7 million in the bank and Vice President Gore had $10.3 million.
But what really astonishes Californians is that, unlike Bradley or Gore, whose political futures will be decided in the next few months, Gray Davis does not face voters for another three years.
"It is an unheard of amount of money. It record-breaking. It is breathtaking," said Craig Holman, author of a now-contested, voter-approved campaign finance reform initiative and a director of the Center for Governmental Studies think tank in Los Angeles. "It is truly the Wild West mentality of campaign fund-raising and shows why reform is so necessary."
Bah humbug, says Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante. "This is not a governor who is influenced by campaign contributions. This is a governor who does what's right, and if some of these naysayers can't grasp that, it's too bad for them."
Indeed, by all accounts, Davis has had a successful first 10 months in office. Insisting that he is both an incrementalist and an unmovable centrist, he has won passage of some groundbreaking legislation on gun control, school accountability and spending, and HMO reform.
He also has wielded his pen, vetoing hundreds of bills passed by the California Assembly and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, many of them more liberal than Davis and champing at the bit after 16 years of Republican control of the governor's office.
But still, there is the money. It is quite a lot. Davis has not only raised cash from his historic base, teachers and unions, but has been getting big checks from traditionally Republican sources--companies and moguls of insurance, oil, HMOs, agriculture, utilities, communications and media.
As Davis told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle this summer, "Everybody, when you are governor, wants to give you money."
Jim Knox of California Common Cause, a watchdog group, said: "He's positioned himself, whether for ideological or fund-raising reasons, or both, right in the middle, and that's one of the beauties of being a moderate. Everyone has a chance, so everyone has to pay."
The governor, seen throughout his long career in California politics as the consummate fund-raiser, gathered more than $6 million in his first six months in office.
Davis's political adviser, Garry South, said the governor spends 5 percent to 8 percent of his waking day raising money. During the evenings and on the occasional weekend, Davis appears at events, eating the finger sandwiches and making brief remarks.
His largest single contributor was Jerry Perenchio, the reclusive billionaire owner of the Spanish-language network Univision. He gave $250,000.
The governor's first two nominees for Board of Regents for the University of California system, John Mooers, an owner of the San Diego Padres, and Judith Hopkinson, leader of Ameriquest Capital Corp., both gave $100,000. The Fox Group, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, gave $150,000.
What is the governor going to do with all this money? The Davis camp appears to be squirreling most of it away to ensure their candidate is flush for his reelection campaign in 2002.
Some money will go toward support of upcoming ballot initiatives and some state Senate and Assembly races. But how much? It is too early to know.
"The assumption is that Davis will spend some of his money on Assembly races and initiatives," said Knox of Common Cause, as former Republican governor Pete Wilson did. "But that remains to be seen."
One of the cruel twists of fate for the once mighty state GOP is that the party is broke, while the state Democratic Party is flush. In his first six months in office, Wilson raised $1.2 million. Davis has raised five times as much. Knox expects Davis to raise $40 million to $50 million for reelection.
South says it is important to recall some history to put his boss's fund-raising in perspective.
When Davis ran for governor in 1998, he faced the awesomely deep pockets of Northwest Airlines executive Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman. His opponents, in the primary alone, broke all records, together spending about $60 million.
At one point, Davis was running fourth against his two main Democratic opponents and Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren in the open primary. Davis eventually pulled ahead, and eventually outspent his Republican rival, whom he beat in a landslide.
But the experience of seeing so much money spent by his opponents made Davis vow that he would do everything he could not to find himself unprepared, South said.
Davis might be working so hard to raise money because of possible changes on the horizon. One is Proposition 208, passed by voters in 1996 but now tied up in the courts. Prop 208 restricted fund-raising amounts and times.
Another measure to be put on the ballot in March by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and GOP Senate challenger Ron Unz, if it passes muster, also would limit campaign financing, capping contribution limits, requiring almost immediate reporting of donations over the Internet and doling out some public financing.
CAPTION: California Gov. Gray Davis and wife Sharon greet supporters at his January inauguration. Davis has wasted no time in building a large war chest for a reelection campaign in 2002, with a reported $10.7 million on hand already.