Both the Gray Davis and Bill Simon campaigns vented steam last week at dogged reporters, and in characteristic ways: Team Davis with tough-guy bluster and the Simon crew with frat-boy officiousness. Davis chief strategist Garry South lectured the Capitol press corps in a public speech, then embarrassingly dressed down the San Jose Mercury News for its constant pounding on the Oracle software scandal. More amusingly, a Simon flack briefly attempted to ban me from the campaign after my latest efforts to pry answers out of his blandly evasive candidate.
Amid the huffing and puffing, it became clear that the Oracle debacle is now coming to a close. It also became clear why it would be virtually impossible to pin the rip-off on Davis, even if he had actually masterminded the entire deal.
As predicted here weeks ago, the Oracle scandal spared Davis and exposed a confusing welter of deceptive sales practices, arguably incompetent or self-interested bureaucrats, and pushy state legislators in league with the database-software giant. No one has actually laid a glove on Davis, though his poll numbers have slipped because of the scrutiny placed on the business-as-usual Capitol fund-raising practices, which he has refined to a science. His precautions in the Governor‘s Office make it virtually impossible ever to answer these two basic questions on any topic: What did the governor know, and when did he know it?
You see, even if he were fully informed of problems with the Oracle deal, which he and his people deny (and there is ample evidence of the software sellers’ hiding information from state officials), and pushed the deal through anyway, there would be practically no evidence of it. Why? Because there are no memos written to the governor of California. Anything he reads is written to ”File.“ If a memo is addressed to Davis, it is returned to its sender. This has been going on for years, by the way, but comes as news to the Simon campaign. There is no paper trail on anything. And the governor doesn‘t use e-mail.
This may be merely a prudent practice on Davis’ part. He‘s a busy man and reads a lot of things, after all, and he doesn’t like long documents, and doesn‘t want to be held responsible for what he didn’t read on Page 17. But it is also a very neat way to insulate himself. If Richard Nixon had been that smooth, Watergate would never have happened.
Needless to say, the Republicans are fuming and flailing over their inability to strike a knockout blow on Oracle. Davis is more unpopular in the wake of a wave of press focus on his fund-raising, and the little-examined Simon is tantalizingly close in recent polls. But if Simon can‘t stand up to scrutiny or if, for example, he can’t answer searching questions without getting tied up in knots or looking ignorant or hypocritical — a familiar pattern to Weekly readers of the last few months — he‘s unlikely to win no matter how unpopular Davis is.
South is deeply frustrated that Simon is getting, as he puts it, a ”free ride“ from most of the press while ”they sit around at their computers and write about the governor’s fund-raising.“ He said as much to most of the state‘s political press corps, assembled last week at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon. ”We know less about Simon than any other major candidate in our lifetimes,“ South declared to the state press corps. ”He has flipped you off, and you take it. He is a mystery man who tries to evade policy questions and won’t tell you anything about the money that fuels his campaign.“ (Simon‘s late drive in the primary was self-funded.) Simon, South complained, refuses to release his tax returns and hides behind very general state financial-disclosure forms that actually reveal very little about the nature of his wealth.
All of this concern about Simon’s lack of candor suggested an obvious question from the Weekly. ”Garry, continuing on your theme of openness and accountability, you are the most influential person with Governor Davis. Who are your business clients?“
I felt a distinct chill directly to my left, where Davis‘ assistant press secretary, Amber Pasricha, sat. South tensed and went into bob-and-weave mode. To his professional credit, he is better at it than Simon. But he was not forthcoming. ”I do have some, yes,“ he admitted. (Which was a surprise, as the word was he would only work for Davis this year.) Who might they be? ”Well, I’m a private citizen.“ Mr. Simon, of course, says the same stuff.
”Look, if I was running for governor, I think that would be a different thing, don‘t you?“ South said.
But you are extraordinarily influential with not just a candidate, but the actual governor, I said.
”I’ve done nothing during my time Gray has been governor, I‘ve never made a dime off the state, have had no state contracts, and my conscience is clear.“
But the clients are private, not public. You don’t think you have a standard of public accountability here?”Ah, no. I‘ll tell you who my clients are when every Republican consultant does the same.“
But the Republicans are out of power.
Later, still seated at the dais, South delivered an in-public upbraiding of Mercury News political writer Dion Nissenbaum, complaining about his focus on fund-raising stories and about the paper’s focus on Oracle. Nissenbaum promised that the paper‘s executive editor would call.
Things were no less tense later at a Capitol watering-hole launch of a hot new Republican consulting firm, the modestly titled ”Command Focus“ (a saying of the late Lee Atwater), which brings together Simon senior strategist Jeff Flint, former Pete Wilson and John McCain spokesman Dan Schnur, state Republican adviser Rob Stutzman, and Simon researcher Mark Bogetich. Things got off to a flying start with a physical altercation at the bar’s entrance between Schnur and senior Democratic adviser Bob Mulholland, which ended with ex-paratrooper Mulholland — who used to delight in pointing out Schnur‘s drunken-driving convictions while serving as spokesman for a law-and-order governor — deciding not to take on a bar full of Republicans. Inside, the Weekly drew an amusing response.
”I used to hate your work. Well, sometimes I still do, but some of it I love, when you go after Davis,“ enthused former Pete Wilson chief of staff Bob White, who now works with after-school-programs initiative sponsor and prospective future gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. Others, recalling the results of the past few months’ questioning of Simon, focused on the ”hate“ part of White‘s comment, while still others loved the grilling of Garry South.
Simon strategist Flint seemed as amused by it all as the Weekly. We talked about the extreme challenge of getting answers from Simon beyond the superficial script devised by Flint, campaign chief Sal Russo and others, and about his frustration with the course of the Oracle scandal.
Flint acknowledged that it is unlikely that a governor who has raised $45 million would force through a $100 million contract in exchange for a $25,000 contribution, which is all that Davis has received. So what, then? Flint speculated that there was a deal between Davis and Oracle chieftain Larry Ellison, California’s richest individual, for support in a future campaign.
But that‘s just speculation. And evidence has swiftly piled up showing that Oracle worked the system from many angles to get its contract, hardly relying on any arrangement with Davis, real or illusory.
Meanwhile, back at the Simon frat house, the usual anger at this writer was welling up. Based on the new evidence of Oracle’s broad-spectrum manipulation of the system to get its no-bid, sole-source contract, I was again trying to get the campaign to do what Simon himself refused to do during his appearance last month at Oracle. Namely, to level any criticism at Oracle for the company‘s role in the Oracle scandal and, failing that, to explain why Simon continues to have no criticism of Oracle. I did this in an e-mail, outlining my continuing questions about Simon’s refusal to criticize Oracle. There was no reply. I passed my questions on to the Davis people for comment and, as a further prompt to the Simon camp, informed them of just that. The teakettle hit full boil.
Simon flack Jamie Fisfis wrote that it had ”come to my attention“ that I had shared correspondence with the Davis campaign and that I was no longer invited to Simon events. I reminded him that it had not ”come to his attention,“ I had brought it to his attention, and that the correspondence consisted of my unanswered questions for his unresponsive campaign. Oops. Flint explained that Fisfis is merely the ”bad cop,“ while he is the ”good cop.“ Actually, the only cops in the process are journalists, and I of course continue to be invited to Simon events.
But this points up the underlying Republican frustration with the Oracle scandal. They don‘t want to criticize a big corporation for manipulating the political process, so they quite illogically place all the blame on Davis. Who they can never actually pin the rap on, and who the available evidence indicates is only one player.
But Davis is badly wounded by all this, as well, as evidenced by the wrath of Garry South. Even though he will almost certainly not be demonstrated to be the mastermind of the Oracle deal — and remember, his practices make that virtually impossible in any event — the press attention occasioned to his fund-raising on account of the Oracle revelations casts a negative light at a time when he was beginning to pull away from his rival, who a hundred days after winning the nomination is still not prepared enough to properly answer questions about complex policy issues, or even to offer an agricultural policy at his own agricultural summit.
In this, Davis is much like his former ally Gary Condit, whose karma finally caught up with him. Condit probably didn’t kill Chandra Levy, but had the misfortune to be caught screwing around with a woman who famously vanished. The rock turned over by the Chandra inquiry could not have been more fateful. While Davis‘ answers are better than Condit’s, and most of the public may in the end view modern-day political fund-raising as an essentially seamy exercise not quite analogous to murder, the focus has been most unflattering. And so both campaigns are angry and frustrated. With a mere 20 weeks to go.