California: 'Humbling' win for Davis - Democrat too tough for Simon

By Margaret Talev -- Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau

November 6, 2002

Sacramento, CA - Gov. Gray Davis declared victory late Tuesday night, defeating Republican challenger Bill Simon in a closer-than-expected finish that reflected Californians' distaste for the Democratic incumbent.

"Politics is a very humbling business," Davis told hundreds of supporters just before midnight at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. "I speak from the heart when I tell the voters I thank them for the opportunity to finish the job."

Davis led Simon 48 percent to 42 percent with 86.8 percent of precincts reporting. Only days earlier, the governor's campaign was predicting a victory margin of as much as 12 percentage points over Simon, a first-time candidate whose campaign even fellow Republicans dubbed the worst in the nation.

Instead, the race was a nail-biter, with Simon leading Davis until about 11 p.m., when ballots from heavily Democratic Los Angeles and San Francisco began trickling in.

In a brief public concession speech, Simon told supporters in Los Angeles that he was "very proud of the race we have run."

He refrained from attacking Davis and was vague about his own plans, saying, "Our campaign to make California the Golden State again must not end."

Polls closed at 8 p.m., ending one of the costliest and least engaging gubernatorial races in California history.

Surveys consistently showed voters disliked both men.

Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Camejo, the front-runner among four minor party candidates, hoped to gain from voters' dissatisfaction. With 86.8 percent of precincts reporting, Camejo had 5 percent of the vote.

Davis faced backlash from last year's energy crisis, this year's budget woes and his constant fund raising from special interests and political appointees.

Simon, a first-time candidate and wealthy investor, was expected to be hindered by ideologically conservative positions but instead was hurt by business scandals and campaign missteps, including false accusations he lobbed at the governor late in the race. Pundits dubbed his campaign the worst in the nation.

"The election was a competition to see who could repel more people from the polls," said John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "The best the winner can say is that Californians hated his opponent even more."

Although Davis raised about $68 million, roughly twice Simon's war chest, polling showed little movement in voters' views of his performance.

Unable to compete on the fund-raising front, Simon had to draw from his family fortune, loaning himself more than $12 million.

Davis' unpopularity had spiked during the energy crisis and held. Simon's popularity sank steadily as voters who knew little about him were fed a stream of negative television ads by the Davis campaign.

Davis, 59, a sharp but uncharismatic leader whose methodical rise to governor took a quarter of a century, began his re-election effort in an unorthodox way in the March Republican primary.

Of the three men in that contest - Simon, Secretary of State Bill Jones and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan - it was Riordan, a colorful moderate, who posed the strongest perceived challenge in the general election.

Davis spent more than $8 million attacking Riordan. Forced to reaffirm his support of abortion rights to preserve his chances in the general election, Riordan alienated the GOP's conservative base, and Simon came from behind to win the primary.

Davis strategists believed they had the best chance against a conservative whose positions on abortion, gun control and the environment might distract voters from the failings for which they blamed the governor.

Republicans hoped Simon, 51, an affable father of four, would make a good counterpoint to Davis, who had earned a reputation as a rigid micromanager.

From the start, however, the GOP's unlikely nominee faced rough waters.

Simon's reluctance to release his tax returns led critics to speculate he was hiding something. He courted gay rights groups, then abandoned them to appease conservatives, leading former Ronald Reagan adviser Lyn Nofziger to write in a column that Simon was "inept, weak" and "too dumb to win."

President Bush visited California to raise money for Simon but largely avoided appearances that might have tied him too closely to a candidate whose business practices were under fire.

Simon also had little support from Bush's point man in California, businessman Gerald Parsky, who had feuded bitterly with Simon's late father, former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon.

Simon turned for help to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a hero to many Americans after Sept. 11 and .Simon's one-time boss during the candidate's brief stint as a federal prosecutor. But that drew attention to Simon's rèsumè - and criticism that he had hyped his prosecutorial experience.

Simon's firm, William E. Simon & Sons, had many successes but some politically problematic ventures: a failed savings and loan, unsuccessful start-ups, oil companies and a firm being sued by the Postal Service. The IRS was investigating an offshore tax shelter in which Simon's family participated.

Then a jury unexpectedly handed down a verdict against .Simon & Sons for defrauding an ex-partner with a criminal drug history. The fraud verdict was overturned only after serious damage to Simon's campaign.

In the wake of the Enron collapse and a tanking stock market, Davis' campaign seized on each issue, spending much of an estimated $40 million advertising budget attacking his opponent. .Simon's own campaign team - a disjointed mix of his supporters, former Jones supporters, local consultants and East Coast gurus - was unable to defuse the bombs.

Davis rallied his bases with Latinos, labor and women. He signed bills expanding workers' compensation benefits, abortion rights and paid family leave.

He campaigned with former President Clinton while downplaying any desire to be president himself.

But the governor was vulnerable on several levels, and Simon's campaign eventually went after him. In the ads he could afford, Simon blamed Davis for the energy crisis, the state's $24 billion deficit, failing schools and crowded roads.

Simon also attacked the governor for running a "pay-to-play" administration, alleging that Davis appointees looked the other way for polluters who contributed to his campaign.

Davis' fund-raising paid for his attack ads but also fueled Simon's charges that he was a "coin-operated" governor. The governor abruptly canceled one fund-raiser after e-mail surfaced that showed the host of the event - Ron Diridon, the chairman of the state High Speed Rail Authority - had solicited funds from those with a financial interest in the system.

In the campaign's closing weeks, Simon teamed up with the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs, which alleged it had a photo of Davis illegally accepting a $10,000 contribution in a state office building.

Simon's credibility collapsed when the site in the photo was identified as a private home.


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