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Running Mr. Right 

Bill Simon goes looking for votes and money

Wednesday, Mar 20 2002
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The Republicans‘ surprise nominee for governor, conservative investor Bill Simon Jr., has four major goals on his to-do list: show some support from women, reach out to Latino voters, consolidate his fractious party base and raise money.

The guy is certainly energetic enough, having crisscrossed the state several times since winning the primary. But he also has plenty of work. Only two women stood behind him at a capital press conference titled ”GOP Women Legislators Endorse Simon,“ their numbers dwarfed by the 17 white male politicians who joined them. Still, the two who showed up are half of the membership of the Legislature’s Republican Women‘s Caucus. (The Legislature has 30 Democratic women.) Republican Assemblywoman Pat Bates -- who had earlier criticized Simon on behalf of the exiled Richard Riordan -- now praised him, saying Simon ”will focus on issues women care deeply about, the economy, taxes and education.“ Missing from her litany was abortion; Simon is staunchly anti-choice, a problematic stance made more so by a weekend revelation in the San Francisco Chronicle that he employs a leader of the right-wing Traditional Values Coalition, Louis Sheldon Jr.

Simon says he doesn’t think abortion is an issue now and won‘t talk much about it, but during the primary Sheldon distributed a Simon-signed letter, addressed to ”Dear Friends of Life,“ in which the candidate speaks of crying ”for the millions of children who never saw the light of day“ and says, ”No one is willing to give up his or her deeply held beliefs. I know I am not.“

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Simon’s hopes to gain Latino support seem, at least at first blush, less encumbered by his generally right-wing convictions. Though the native New Yorker has rarely voted in California elections since first registering here a decade ago, he insists that he did vote against the anti--illegal immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994. Former Republican Governor Pete Wilson‘s championing of 187 helped turn most Latino voters solidly Democratic.

When the Weekly learned that Simon was taping a half-hour pitch to Latino voters, which will air statewide on March 23 on the Spanish-language Univision network, that seemed like the place to be.

The Simon-campaign advance man was shocked when I walked into the lobby of KUVS Channel 19 in Sacramento and asked the receptionist whether the Republican a candidate for governor had arrived yet. He had not. An amusing little game of campaign-trail cat-and-mouse then ensued.

Had a press conference been called? asked the nervous Simon advance man. No. Just here to ask a couple of related questions before or after the candidate’s big Latino media event. Simon-campaign cell phones then went into overdrive. After several phone calls, it was determined that, since the novice candidate was ”running very late,“ I could ask Simon a few brief questions after his Univision interview but could not watch the interview.

”Please allow Mr. Simon to enter the building safely,“ the campaign advance man requested. Safely? Attired in a dark Armani suit and with hair nearly short enough for the Simon staff, I pointed out that the doorway was 12 feet across. Simon then pulled up to the front of the station in his black limousine.

This was not the ever-smiling Bill Simon of the primary campaign. Unfailingly friendly in the past but now apparently well outside his comfort zone, the grim-faced candidate ignored my greeting, walking past without making eye contact. Nevertheless, Simon communications director Bob Taylor then confirmed that the Republican nominee would answer a few questions after the interview. ”Meet us here in the lobby,“ he instructed.

Noting that the Simon limo was parked in front of the station, I ducked across the street to buy a DVD for a friend. And returned to find that, surprise, the limo had been moved.

A one-minute search found the Simon limo parked in a garage beneath the station. Encountering the Simon advance man upstairs, I asked if the candidate would be exiting through the lobby, as agreed to, or leaving by another route. ”We‘ll see,“ was the reply. Back down in the garage, the driver obligingly acknowledged that he was waiting for Simon to finish his interview and get on the road, as they were very late. A few minutes later, after talking in hushed tones on his cell phone, the driver had a different story. He was only driving staff. Simon was probably leaving in another car.

From the front of the station. No sale. After another cell-phone call, the driver moved Simon’s limo right next to the elevator, to enable the candidate to make a quick getaway without answering any of the agreed-to questions.

Finally, more than half an hour after his interview, the supposedly ”very late“ Simon emerged from the elevator surrounded by dark-suited men and clambered into his limo, ignoring my calls of ”Mr. Simon, Mr. Simon, the questions we agreed on . . .“

So Simon may have to wait for a public press conference to take the Weekly‘s questions.

Consolidating the party base should be a simpler task for Simon. Although Riordan had bitter feelings toward his onetime friend, calling him a ”sanctimonious hypocrite“ and ”an extremist“ during the closing days of the primary campaign, the former Los Angeles mayor’s support was thin, and his endorsements were based on his alleged ”winnability.“ When that wilted under the withering fire of Democratic Governor Gray Davis, so did the support. And Republican politicians who scrambled aboard the Riordan bandwagon have quickly jumped on the Simon express.

The Republicans‘ troublesome fractiousness remains. Some right-wingers are seeking to purge L.A. mega-investor Gerald Parsky from his role on the state party’s oversight board. Since this is a role dictated by the White House -- Parsky was Bush‘s California campaign chairman and continues to represent his interests in the Golden State -- this may not be so easy. But Parsky has championed a more moderate approach for California Republicans, and the Republican right is emboldened after Simon’s rout of Riordan in the primary. The Simon campaign says it has no role in the anti-Parsky move.

Simon‘s fund-raising should pick up now that he is the Republican nominee. In the primary, he relied on his personal wealth to fuel most of his late surge against the collapsing Riordan campaign. And most of what he raised from others came from outside California, a first for a major-party nominee in this state. As L.A. commentator Joel Kotkin noted in the lead post-primary Wall Street Journal opinion piece, ”The Graying of California,“ which dampened hoped-for national conservative enthusiasm for Simon, the new Republican candidate has shallow roots in California business.

But help is on the way. Republican sources say that the Bush-controlled national Republican Party has guaranteed $10 million to Simon. Republican National Chairman Marc Racicot is in the state this week campaigning with Simon and assisting the novice candidate in making connections with big California Republican donors. And President Bush himself will come to California next month to spend a day campaigning with Simon, a day that will be capped off with a big fund-raiser starring the commander in chief, probably in L.A.

The Simon campaign hopes to boost its prospects with a poll, distributed in faux-newsletter format as ”The RMR Insider,“ actually a press release from the consulting firm of Sal Russo, Simon’s campaign manager. Though the newsletter doesn‘t point this out, presenting the polling firm only as ”the nationally recognized“ Public Opinion Strategies, the firm is the pollster for, yes, Bill Simon. The thinly disguised Simon poll unsurprisingly indicates that Simon now leads Davis by a sizable 7 percent, and even purportedly leads among women voters, for whom abortion is not a major issue.

The Davis campaign, which has its own polls, hotly disputes this. ”This is an illegitimate push-poll,“ charged Davis Press Secretary Roger Salazar. A push-poll is a poll that influences responses by presenting one-sided premises.

Simon communications director Bob Taylor acknowledged that the questionnaire for the poll begins with California newspapers describing the Davis administration as ”a train wreck“ but insists that the setup for the questions and the questions themselves were ”very fair and straightforward.“ He declined, however, to reveal any of the actual questions, though the Weekly offered to look only at those related to the Davis-Simon horserace.

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