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Born in New York, New York, Davis moved to California with his family as a child in 1954. He graduated from a North Hollywood military academy, the Harvard School for Boys (now part of Harvard-Westlake School). He earned a BA in history at Stanford University, where he was admitted to the Zeta Psi fraternity, graduating in 1964. He then returned to New York to attend Columbia 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 Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. from 1974 to 1981. He met his future wife, the former Sharon Ryer, while on an airplane tending to official business in 1978. Ryer, a flight attendant for Pacific Southwest Airlines, was miffed when Davis held up the departure of the flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Davis apologized and asked her out, and they later married in 1983, with California Supreme Court justice Rose Bird officiating. He was elected to the office of 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, Davis was strongly viewed as a possible Democratic candidate for President in either 2000 or 2004. The California electricity crisis of 2001 and budget deficit of 2003 hurt his reputation, and talk of his putative Presidential candidacy evaporated. His early administration focused on balancing the state budget and education reform. However energy problems soon came to dominate his agenda. As a result of a flawed bipartisan energy deregulation signed into law by the previous governor Pete Wilson, electric power companies were no longer responsible for meeting the overall electricity needs of the state; instead, they would act as independent players in a newly created energy trading market. The law also elminated the long term power contracts that utilities used to hedge the long term costs of power plant construction. Soon after taking office, Davis was able to fast-track the first power plant construction in 12 years in April 1999, but the plant did not come on line in time to avert a crisis. California's power companies were bankrupted by the unusual provisions of the law which required them to buy power at unregulated wholesale prices while selling it at regulated retail prices to consumers. By 2001, electricity demand began to exceed supply and the market was ripe for the resulting short squeeze by energy speculators, led by Enron Corporation, who collectively made a killing in the market while the state suffered rolling blackouts. Davis was forced to step in to buy power at highly unfavorable terms on the open market, since the California power companies were techinically bankrupt and had no buying power. The resulting massive long term debt obligations added to the state budget crisis and led to widespread grumbling about Davis's administration. 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 allowing state spending to increase, taking advantage of a temporary surge in revenues associated with the short-lived dot-com boom. When the dot-com boom turned to bust, state revenues fell while ongoing spending commitments created deficits that still trouble California's state budget. Davis had claimed that he would remove MTBE (a toxic gasoline additive) from the state's gas. A year later he said, "Well, we wait a couple of years before we remove it." However, this never happened. 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 theorized that, as a moderate, Riordan could 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 as planned. Riordan was in fact defeated in the Republican primary by more staunchly conservative candidate, Bill Simon. And then Davis was re-elected in the November 2002 general election following a long and bitter campaign against Simon, marked by accusations of ethical lapses on both sides and widespread voter apathy. Davis gained re-election with 47.4% of the vote to Simon's 42.4%. A memorable footnote to the race was that both Davis and Simon were brothers of the Zeta Psi fraternity (Davis at Stanford, Simon at Williams), and followed the gubernatorial term of another Zeta Psi brother, Pete Wilson, of the Yale chapter.
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