NEW POLLS SHOW THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA is actually close. Which makes Republican nominee Bill Simon's performance at his first policy summit, this one on agriculture and water, all the more striking for its missed opportunities. A strong performance could have put Governor Gray Davis further on the defensive. As it was, Davis launched a TV advertising campaign this week that tries to repair damage wrought by the Oracle computer-software scandal and his greedy fund-raising. At the statehouse, Davis sought to reinforce his credentials as a defense minister to keep pace with George Bush's creation of a new Department of Homeland Security.

But for amusement, Bill Simon appears to be the next best thing to hapless Dick Riordan. Last week, in sweltering 109-degree heat in the farm town of Lodi, the Weekly's questions led Simon, the superrich L.A. investor-turned-tyro-politician, to change his position on L.A. Assemblywoman Fran Pavley's bill to fight global warming. He now, it seems, is neutral on it, despite all the press releases his campaign office has sent out against the measure that would force carmakers to spend millions and produce cleaner-burning engines. He went on to acknowledge that he did not know the amount of the state's agricultural budget (this, at his “Agriculture Summit,” mind you). And that he does not yet have a policy on farm labor. Nor, for that matter, was he able to articulate one substantive area of disagreement on agricultural issues with Davis other than “priorities,” as in “I care about agriculture and Davis does not.”

To be fair, the Republican nominee was fairly rattled at that point. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

When Simon looks back on the event, he may well be humming the words from the old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, “Oh, Lord, stuck in Lodi again.”

After the summit, which he lauded as “including all points of view,” save for the farm workers union, of course, Simon dropped by the back of the hall for the press. During the summit, Secretary of State Bill Jones repeatedly brought up global warming, noting that a recent report estimated that 82 percent of the Sierra snow pack could be eliminated by the greenhouse effect, a problem for the state's already troubled water supply.

Noting his professed concern about the state's water supply and the impact of global warming on the snow pack, the Weekly asked Simon if he continued to oppose the global-warming bill. As is his frequent practice with challenging questions, he tried to dodge at first, citing his concern about the existing water supply. “But as Secretary Jones notes, sir, global warming may well make the problem far worse. Your campaign has repeatedly attacked the bill. Do you still oppose AB 1058?” Simon seemed for a moment unaware of his campaign's attacks on the bill. But he did recover. “No,” he said. “You have to continue to evaluate.”

With Simon moving from a position of opposition to neutrality on the state's proposed efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions, he went on to say that he wasn't sure if there should be federal controls as well. “I want to give that further thought.”

Does he still support the 15 percent across-the-board cut in the state's operating budget he championed in the primary? “Yes.” How much would that affect the state's agricultural programs? “I can't give you those numbers off the top of my head.” Does he know the state's agricultural budget? “No.”

On to farm-labor policy, a staple for Republican candidates for decades. Except for this one. The Weekly reminded Simon that he had canceled an event scheduled the previous day at Giumarra vineyards, outside Bakersfield, moving it to the local airport instead. Workers at Giumarra had complained of being sprayed by their employer's pesticides. What is the Simon farm-labor policy? “We don't have a policy right now. We have to give that a little more thought.”

AS SIMON STUMBLED YET AGAIN, HIS ALLY PRESIDENT Bush surprised everyone by coming out for a Department of Homeland Security, finally getting behind the idea proposed last year by the blue-ribbon U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century. Former Senator Gary Hart, commission co-chair, said, “It's exactly what our commission recommended in January 2001. Should have been done quite a while back.” What do we do about the problems of FBI and CIA intelligence failures that are not addressed by the establishment of a new department? “Start from scratch,” Hart said.

One wonders if the big opening for the latest Jack Ryan espionage adventure, The Sum of All Fears, in which terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon at the Super Bowl, had anything to do with Bush's move, which even key players in his own administration did not expect. Or the fact that pre-9/11 intelligence failures were just being highlighted on Capitol Hill. Or that the seeming al Qaeda plot to detonate a radiological weapon in the U.S. was about to be revealed.

In any event, Gray Davis swiftly moved to express his strong support for the department, or at least for what he knew of it. The proposed department would pull together previously disparate agencies dealing with borders and immigration, emergency management, research on countermeasures, and a new focus on counterintelligence to fight terrorism. Davis strongly emphasized the intelligence piece of the new security department, so the Weekly pursued him with questions about California's role in counterintelligence/counterterrorism. He was a little vague about present capabilities — which are limited, essentially, to the state clearing-house he established, the attorney general's California Bureau of Investigation (which hardly anyone knows about, and which has recently been focusing on the Russian mob), the LAPD's intel operation and the National Guard. As he noted, the California Highway Patrol, which Davis uses for everything security-related, has no intel capability. He said the state's capability might be expanded, but isn't sure how.

He also talked about the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, ostensibly under the University of California, which would become part of the new security department, noting that he actually recommended this in a meeting with Bush last December when they discussed how lab personnel might be employed to develop anti-terror technology.

A later interview with Davis' homeland-security adviser, former senior FBI Agent George Vinson, revealed what turns out to be California's expanding anti-terror/counterintelligence program. Vinson, who said he talks with Bush's homeland-security adviser, Tom Ridge, three times a week, also commented on those pervasive rumors of a coming big Fourth of July terrorist attack. “I know of no corroborating intel of a Fourth of July terrorist attack in California,” he said.

Working out of the Governor's Office, Vinson advises Davis and coordinates the state's anti-terrorist activities, focusing on “first responders” like emergency service, law enforcement and National Guard personnel and on the state's emerging counterintelligence capability, organized around the state Justice Department's new California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC), with 70 agents and a $14 million budget. Vinson and others are working to further expand the state's counterterrorist operations by establishing task forces based in local police departments, with hundreds of members. An extensive training program is under way to bring local law enforcement up to speed.

“Counterintelligence is all about piecing together shards of information that may not mean much by themselves but form a pattern when looked at in the overall,” noted Vinson. But the information has to be recognized as potentially important by locals, which is where the task forces and the larger training program come in. And pieced together by people with a view of the overall situation, which is where the expanding CATIC operation comes in.

DEMOCRATIC SOURCES EXPECT DAVIS' TV CAMPAIGN TO LAST until Election Day. Top Democrats acknowledged that Davis' lead, as one pollster put it, “is in the low single
digits” after weeks of negative coverage of his fund-raising practices and scant coverage to date of Simon's foibles. Davis has gone on the attack, skewering Simon for his firm's involvement in the collapse of a savings and loan, along with offering two positive ads promoting the Davis record. Even though Simon is close in the polls, he has not yet gone on the air. Though he received a big boost from two Bush fund-raisers last month, Simon still hasn't drawn much financial support beyond his own bank accounts and those of his wealthy family.

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