He’s been hammering at the same message for months.
Gray Davis, “pay-to-play” governor.
Gray Davis, “coin-operated governor.”
Gray Davis, creator of “state government for sale to the highest bidder.”
Republican Bill Simon began his campaign by attacking the Democratic governor’s handling of the state’s energy crisis and budget woes, but Davis’ fund raising has become Simon’s overarching argument against giving Davis a second term.
And he’s had no shortage of material to use.
Last week, the governor abruptly canceled a fund-raiser at the home of Rod Diridon, Davis’ chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, after Diridon invited a list of guests who stand to benefit from Davis’ support of a proposed $10 billion high-speed train system.
Earlier in the week, insurance consumer activists tore into Davis for accepting $25,000 from Mercury Insurance two days after a Mercury-favored bill arrived on his desk. The bill would allow the company to charge more for its insurance to certain customers.
“Just when we think we’ve seen the worst from this governor, we find a new bottom,” Simon said. “You don’t need to connect the dots to see the picture.
“If the activities he’s engaged in are not illegal, they ought to be. At
minimum, they are grossly unethical and beneath the dignity of someone who chooses to call himself the governor of California.”
With 44 days to Election Day, Simon is betting that his criticism of Davis’ fund-raising practices is resonating with voters.
Garry South, Davis’ chief campaign strategist, says voters may not be crazy about fund-raising, but they consider it part of politics.
“In no election I’ve ever worked in or been around have I ever thought this was a decisive or determinative argument,” South said last week.
Others aren’t so sure.
Even some of the state’s leading Republican political strategists say Simon has run such a mistake-plagued campaign that there has to be some overriding reason that Davis led the political novice by just seven points in the last statewide Field Poll.
It must be the fund-raising issue, they say.
“Bill Simon is running the worst campaign in the history of California, and Gray Davis – even with all that money – can’t put him away,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant from Los Angeles.
“I can’t pick up a story where Davis signs a bill and the reporter doesn’t put in there how much money he got from some special interest. It’s a very effective issue.”
Ken Khachigian, another GOP consultant, called Simon’s harping on Davis’ fund-raising “a rocket going up, not down. Simon’s riding it fairly well, but not the way he needs to. It should get better.”
For weeks now, Simon has been circulating what he calls Davis’ “Top 20+ Pay to Play list.” Last week, with Simon’s blessing, state Sen. Dick Ackerman, R-Fullerton, a candidate for attorney general, sent an expanded Simon list to state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, demanding an investigation to see whether Davis has broken any laws.
Lockyer said he’d review the material but so far didn’t see anything
The list, a summary of recent news articles, starts with the Oracle software scandal, in which a Davis aide was fired after taking a $25,000 campaign check from a company that sold the state a software program, and winds through a history of Davis fund-raising controversies:
– There’s the $251,000 he recently received from the union that represents state prison guards after signing legislation in January to grant them a 34 percent pay raise over five years.
– In May, Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association, told reporters that Davis personally asked him to secure a $1 million contribution from the CTA while Johnson and Davis were discussing education policy. Davis has disputed that version of events.
– Five days later, on May 17, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that students at the University of California, Berkeley were offered an opportunity to meet Davis if they gave $100 each to his campaign.
The list cites articles in virtually every major newspaper in the state, including The Bee, that report Davis taking money from someone who has business before the governor either in the form of a bill on his desk they want signed, support for pending legislation or action sought by Davis-appointed boards or commissions.
One of the more recent examples is a case pressed by consumer activists who note that Mercury Insurance gave $25,000 to Davis with a bill on his desk that would allow insurance companies to levy a surcharge for motorists whose coverage lapses.
Activists held press conferences demanding that Davis return the money, enlisting the help of U.S. soldiers who fought in Afghanistan in the war against terrorism because they could be forced to pay the surcharge if their coverage was canceled while overseas.
“This takes pay-to-play to a new low,” charged Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “This is far less subtle than Oracle.”
Asked last week whether it was appropriate to take the Mercury money while the bill was on his desk, Davis said critics like Heller are premature.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to prejudge my actions,” he said. “Let’s see what actions I take on all the measures on my desk and then people can make judgments.”
On Thursday, Davis aggressively defended his practices in a discussion with The Bee Editorial Board, saying that he has gone “the extra mile” to eliminate perceptions of corruption in the Governor’s Office. “I have conducted myself in an appropriate fashion in accordance with the law, and I have no apologies for
what I’ve done.”
Nevertheless, the damage to Davis has already been done – and it’s keeping alive Simon’s hopes for an upset win in November, said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It accounts for some of the lack of enthusiasm for Gray Davis,” Cain said. “Some of the lack of enthusiasm is attributable to how he handled the budget and the electricity crises. But this is an element of it, particularly among Democrats.”
By continuing to focus on fund-raising, Cain said, Simon’s strategists hope enough Democrats will become so disaffected with Davis that they’ll either stay home on Election Day or vote for an alternative to the two major-party candidates.
“Simon is not going to convert large numbers of people to his cause,” Cain added. “Those days are long over. The strategy is for a very low turnout and a large third-party vote. All the fund-raising talk has to help in that regard.”
To South, the fund-raising criticisms are largely unfair, a creation of sloppy and biased news reporting being capitalized upon by Simon.
“There’s not a day that goes by where one of (Davis’) major contributors isn’t ticked off about something,” South said, “because he hasn’t done all they’ve wanted him to do. He’s vetoed their bills. He’s come out against their legislative priorities, and he’s not made appointments they wanted.”
Voters, he said, aren’t particularly surprised or outraged.
“Every single criticism (Simon) has thrown at us, we’ve thrown at focus groups. Do they like it? No. Do they think it’s unique to Davis? No. Do they think that every politician does it? Yes. Do they think Simon would do it differently if he were in? No. It’s probably not good for democracy, but this is nothing new.”
Political experts say the strategy ultimately will work only if Simon can get his message on television, something he’s yet to do in a sustained way.
“This will cut (with voters) if Bill Simon and his organization make a point of taking advantage of what’s on the front pages of the newspapers every day,” said Khachigian. “It’s a no-brainer. It has potential to be explosive. It’s like a train picking up speed, and you’ll determine the ultimate value on November 5th.”
Pay to Play?
Here are five of what Gov. Gray Davis‘ critics believe are the most egregious examples of his administration acting to please campaign contributors.
– May 31, 2001
The Davis administration approved a $95 million software contract with Oracle Corp. Less than a week later, a top Davis aide accepted a $25,000 check for Davis’ campaign from an Oracle lobbyist.
– Feb. 16, 2000
The San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board upheld a strict dioxin limit on Tosco’s Avon Refinery. The next day, the company donated $55,000 to Davis’ campaign. In June, the board reversed its decision.
– Jan. 16, 2002
Davis approved a lucrative contract with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association that will result in a 34 percent pay raise over five years. In March, the union donated $251,000 to Davis’ campaign.
– May 2, 2002
Citing environmental concerns, Davis’ Building Standards Commission prohibited use of plastic water pipes in homes. The California Pipe Trades Council, which opposes the plastic pipe, has contributed $664,000 to Davis since the commission acted.
– Sept. 29, 2000
Davis vetoed a bill – overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature – to require warning labels and other restrictions on dietary supplements containing ephedrine. In 2000, Davis received $125,000 in contributions from Metabolife, a manufacturer of such supplements, and its owner.
Source: Bee research
The Bee’s Gary Delsohn can be reached at (916) 326-5545 or