THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IN CALIFORNIA -- set to choose its standard bearer on March 5 to venture into battle against Governor Gray Davis -- is fighting for its survival. November’s contest against Davis may be the party’s last chance to undo the Democrats’ stranglehold on state government before an increasingly powerful Latino-labor coalition completely overwhelms the GOP.
It is astonishing to realize that not long ago, Republicans held the California Governor’s chair and controlled both the State Senate and Assembly. But that was before 1994 and Proposition 187, a Pete Wilson-backed initiative (passed by the people and gutted by the courts) that sought to bar illegal immigrants from receiving taxpayer-funded benefits. The furious reaction to the proposition from the state’s burgeoning Latino population awakened a sleeping giant and led to an explosion of anti-GOP votes in the late 1990s. The result was that the Democrats now claim all but one statewide office and have nearly a veto-proof majority in both legislative houses.
Under these dire circumstances -- which developing demographic and voting trends almost guarantee to aggravate -- it is remarkable that a spirited, albeit increasingly acrimonious, contest has arisen in the semi-comatose California Republican Party for the right to challenge Davis. The contenders are former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, financier Bill Simon, Jr., and Secretary of State Bill Jones.
Riordan, who was encouraged to make the race by the Bush White House and is supported by most of California’s GOP Congressional delegation, has until very recently maintained a lead in the polls. The latest soundings suggest at best a dead heat with Simon. A multi-millionaire lawyer and businessman, Riordan first ran for office in 1993 when he won the non-partisan Mayor’s race in riot-scared LA with the campaign slogan, “Tough Enough to Turn Los Angeles Around.” Four years later he coasted to re-election over old time radical State Senator Tom Hayden.
Riordan built a respectable record as Mayor running a pro-business administration. With great determination, he pushed through the adoption of a new city charter. Despite the fact that the Mayor has no legal authority over the schools, Riordan led and financed a successful election effort to oust the union-backed majority on the Board of the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District and replace them with reformers. In a city where Republicans are few and far between, Riordan managed to win the cooperation and votes of many Democrats, liberals, and Latinos.
Some Republicans attack the 71-year old Riordan as being a Democrat in Republican clothing. Over the past 20 years the non-ideological civic leader has given substantial contributions to both Democratic and GOP candidates. He supported his friend and fellow Angeleno Tom Bradley when he ran unsuccessfully for Governor against Republican George Deukmejian, who says that he will not support Riordan if he wins the GOP nomination. Riordan has also shown sympathy for government-funded health care in a state whose public services are already stretched to the breaking point as a result of a huge influx of poor immigrants.
To bolster his Republican credentials, Riordan points to his work on behalf of the recall of the “soft-on-crime” California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird as well as his support for crime victims and term limits proposals ultimately passed by the voters. In 1998 Riordan’s participation in the campaign for Proposition 227, the initiative to ban bilingual (read “Spanish-only”) education helped to propel the measure to victory. Riordan promises a fiscally responsible business and job-friendly state administration if elected Governor.
Personally anti-abortion, Riordan has taken a strong pro-choice stand, something that he urges on the GOP if it is ever to prevail again among women voters in liberal California.
Millionaire financier Bill Simon, Jr., son of the late Nixon Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon, has received the support of many self-described Reagan conservatives, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, supply-sider Jack Kemp, and Rudy Guiliani, his former boss in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. The 50-year old New Jersey native vows no new taxes and advocates a capital gains tax cut, education reform, and a halt to further gun control. He is pro-life in a pro-choice state.
As a relative newcomer to California and a political neophyte making his first run for public office, Simon suffers from low name recognition, which he has been trying to overcome by means of a vigorous advertising blitz. In recent days, the polls have shown major movement toward Simon – partly thanks to an unprecedented barrage of TV commercials by Democrat Davis attacking Riordan even before the GOP primary has been settled. It has been generally assumed that Davis particularly fears possible opponent Riordan with his track record of winning Democratic support.
If Simon manages to inspire a strong conservative turnout, he could well emerge as the come-from-behind winner and would no doubt be an energetic campaigner against Davis. The question, however, is whether Simon would be able to attract the independent and Democratic voters necessary to compensate for the dwindling percentage of Republicans, who are outnumbered by registered Democrats by 1.7 million. It should not be taken for granted that because Reagan triumphed in California, so could Simon. Simon has yet to show himself as another Reagan, and the state today is a very different place than it was 35 years ago.
The final candidate, Bill Jones, 52, of Fresno is a well-regarded former Assemblyman and the present Secretary of State, the only Republican to hold statewide office. Politically, he stirred controversy in 2000 when he defected from the early George W. Bush campaign and took up the helm of John McCain’s California effort. Despite his many years of public service, the under-funded Jones finds himself being squeezed out of contention by his two rich opponents, Riordan on his left and Simon on his right. He was the first to break Ronald Reagan’ Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican,” with bitter attacks on Riordan. By these last days of the campaign, however, all the candidates have been doing their part to shred that seemingly long forgotten admonition.
And who is the man that these three Republicans would love to defeat? Governor Gray Davis has spent most of his adult life on the public payroll and was first known to the voters as Jerry Brown’s Chief of Staff. Later he represented wealthy Beverly Hills in the State Assembly and then became famous as Controller for putting the faces of missing children on the sides of milk cartons. When he was Lieutenant Governor, Davis made a run for a US Senate seat and showed the depths that he was willing to go in order to win an election. He ran TV commercials comparing his primary opponent Dianne Feinstein to convicted felon and hotel heiress Leona Helmsley.
As Governor, Davis has presided over the downturn of the California economy, the end of the budget surplus and the ballooning of a massive deficit, and the continuing decay of the state’s infrastructure. He has assiduously cultivated a tough-on-crime persona, complete with strong support for the death penalty, and backed the expansion of social welfare programs. Davis has lost public approval on account of his handling of the state’s energy crisis, particularly for his decision to sign power contracts at the market peak, thus costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
The California primary will reveal which Republican, almost surely Riordan or Simon, gets the chance to confront Gray Davis. And in November we shall learn whether the Democrats will continue to consolidate their power in the Golden State, or if Dick Riordan or Bill Simon will have been tough enough -- and politically savvy enough -- to win the opportunity to turn California around and, not incidentally, to resuscitate the GOP.