LOS ANGELES -- Gray Davis, the lieutenant governor of California, threw his arms over his head in mock celebration and, grinning playfully, proclaimed: "I'm the governor today!"
The scene was Democrat Davis' hideaway office near the Los Angeles Airport and the occasion was one of those days when the elected governor, Republican Pete Wilson, was out of the state, prospecting his chances back East for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.
California law declares that when the governor is out of state, the lieutenant governor assumes not only the duties of the governor as a standby but the actual office itself, with all its powers.
The law bothers many Republicans, because they remember what a Republican lieutenant governor, Mike Curb, did in the 1970s when the Democratic governor behind whom he served, Jerry Brown, similarly made out-of-state jaunts to pursue presidential ambitions. Curb took it upon himself to make substantive as well as ceremonial decisions, including the appointment of judges, requiring Brown to go to court to annul them.
Davis knows this history, because he was chief of staff to Brown at the time. However, he says he has assured Wilson that he will make no critical gubernatorial decisions when the governor is out of California just to embarrass him, and he will act only when a decision is required before Wilson is scheduled to return.
Davis' presence as lieutenant governor poses a more serious political problem for Wilson. If he were to be elected president next year, he would be turning the office over to a Democrat under the state's succession law. Many Republicans who contributed heavily to Wilson's re-election campaign last fall, in which he pledged if re-elected to serve the full four-year term, would be furious.
To assuage their concerns, Wilson allies in the state legislature have proposed abolishing the office of lieutenant governor in 1997 and putting the state attorney general, now a Republican, next in line of gubernatorial succession. In addition, the Wilson camp is said to be considering proposing an initiative to change the state constitution and require a special election in the event of a gubernatorial vacancy.
These notions have brought down a storm of editorial vituperation on Wilson and have swelled charges of political opportunism, particularly in light of his pre-election vow to serve the full term. The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized that "the contempt which Wilson displays toward Californians who believed his campaign promise is only deepened by the overweening arrogance he shows in devising cheap political tricks to avoid responsibility for his own words."
The Los Angeles Times argued that "a better governmental reform . . . would amend the Constitution to require both offices to be conjoined on one ticket. . . . The whole point of a Constitution is to embed government structures and procedures such a firm foundation that government can't be easily tilted by political winds of the moment."
Even the conservative San Diego Union Tribune in Wilson's old home town observed that "there is no honorable way for Wilson to get around his 1994 campaign promise to finish out his second term. We believe Pete Wilson has what it takes to serve effectively in the White House someday. But 1996 is not the year he should seek it."
Craig Fuller, the recently appointed chairman of Wilson's presidential campaign, says Wilson will time his campaign trips to make sure "Gray Davis isn't going to be signing or vetoing bills." As for the proposal to have a gubernatorial vacancy filled by special election, Fuller says Wilson is for it as a means to meet "his real obligation" to see that an election to the presidency will not mean he is "abandoning the state to a Democrat."
Davis says the proposal would put "a $20 million debt on the taxpayers" to pay for the special election, "so he can renege on his promise not to run for president. We've already had an election to determine succession." He predicts voters will emphatically reject any such proposal. Meanwhile, he clearly relishes all the publicity -- and the prospects of many more times on which he can proclaim: "I'm the governor today!"