TCS Daily

Unseating the unGovernor No Longer Unthinkable

By Hugh Hewitt - August 8, 2001 12:00 AM

California expected a summer of rolling blackouts, but that threat is fading as temperatures stay low. We are instead awash in conflict-of-interest stories coming from Sacramento. Our unGovernor is avoiding the press for fear of having to answer some of the questions surrounding the energy-supply contracting fiasco of the spring, but he can't stay hidden forever. His spokespeople have turned to blanket denials and media bashing, but Davis stays under his desk, hoping that the short attention span of the West Coast media will allow the mess to blow over.

Davis has a problem though. In fact he has three: Dick Riordan, Bill Jones, and William E. Simon Jr. These are the three men seeking the GOP nomination for the statehouse in 2002. Any of them would be preferable to Davis, but that's not saying much. Just about any executive with decision-making experience would be preferable to Davis. These three bring much more, however, including a clear appreciation of the differences between chief executive and chief fundraiser. Davis has proven himself skilled only at the science and the art of shaking down contributors. The GOP's trio of potential nominees can each claim to be better equipped to deal with the electricity crisis and to do so more ethically than the incompetent and ethically challenged Davis has proven to be.

Riordan is the front-runner, and if his advisors are to be believed, he is in the hunt for good. This very popular ex-mayor of Los Angeles comes across as occasionally baffled and a little tongue-tied, sort of like Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, the exterior affability conceals a first-rate intellect and huge decision-making capacity. Riordan also has strong ties to the newly powerful Latino community, ties that Davis has cultivated only from a distance and then only half-heartedly. Riordan begins his battle with a strong position inside Los Angeles, and that keeps Davis advisor Gary South awake at night. Riordan's only problem is with the conservative movement that knows he's pro-choice and that knows he has supported Democrats over Republicans in partisan races in the past. (Riordan's wife has even given money to Davis.) A few well-timed endorsements from conservative icons would chill the dissent, and Riordan is said to be working on those. Endorsements aside, however, Riordan is selling his ability to win. In this land of runaway state budgets, blown surpluses and out-of-control bureaucracies, that "winner" label is a powerful magnet for Republican primary voters who cannot imagine what another four years of Davis would bring.

Bill Jones is the only Republican to have survived the state's electorate tilt to the left side of the political spectrum. Jones is a fine guy, but the office he holds -- Secretary of State -- is not positioned to draw much attention. Jones did push the ethics questions to the front of the narrow field of vision of California's press corps, but he cannot get a serious fund-raising effort off the ground. Davis has a $30 million head start on Jones. A lot of folks like Jones, but the realists know that television time in the Golden State is just too rich a commodity.

That's not a problem for former Assistant U.S. Attorney and investor-philanthropist Bill Simon. This is the son of the late William Simon, who is remembered for his books and tenure as Secretary of the Treasury. Young Simon brings his father's intellect and business skills to a race that will emphasize both. He also brings a bank book and a Rolodexâ that can match the Davis machine despite the head start it's been given. Simon has assembled a talented staff and is working on improving his public speaking and give-and-take. Given it's Davis he's challenging, the gap is not that big.

The last time an incumbent governor lost a race in California was 1966. That Governor, Pat Brown, found himself on the wrong side of public opinion over chaos on the Berkeley campus. A newcomer to electoral politics challenged Brown on that and other issues, and Ronald Reagan's inexperience did not matter. The Gipper's first win came only two years after the GOP's wipeout in 1964. Pundits thought it would take a generation for the Republican Party to recover. It took exactly one election.

Davis is now clearly on the defensive and guru South is sounding increasingly hysterical in his shrill attacks, especially on the amiable Riordan. One of the first rules of politics is never show the public your panic. It's too late for that on the Davis Team. Whether Davis can find his way out of the ethics swamp is debatable, but it's almost a given that he cannot now turn the power crisis into anything other than a huge loss. No matter which of the three Republicans are nominated, a once safe seat for the Democrats is suddenly in play.

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