The Magazine

Simon Says--Surprise!

Bill Simon pulls an upset in California's gubernatorial primary. Can he do it again in the fall?

Mar 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 26 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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When poll results a week before California's gubernatorial primary showed political neophyte Bill Simon with a six-point lead over two-term Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, directors of California's Field Poll suggested voters were witnessing "one of the most remarkable turnarounds in California election history." That assessment, dismissed by many observers at the time as an exaggeration, turned out to be an understatement.

A month before the March 5 primary, Riordan led Simon by more than 30 percentage points. In fact, Riordan had a 2-to-1 lead over the combined total of Simon and the third candidate in the race, Secretary of State Bill Jones. But last Tuesday Simon crushed Riordan, with 49 percent of the vote to Riordan's 31 and Jones's 17. In so doing, he earned the right to challenge the man largely responsible for his victory--incumbent Democratic governor Gray Davis.

Davis spent $10 million dollars during the Republican primary, most of it on ads attacking Riordan, whom Davis advisers considered their toughest potential competitor. Top California Democrats have already dismissed Simon as "road kill," and Davis wasted no time in labeling his opponent a fringe candidate, a far right-winger out of step with average Californians.

To make that point, Davis kicked off his general election campaign by talking mainly about social issues--gun control, gay rights, and especially abortion. Simon, naturally, is talking about those issues that make Davis one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors up for reelection this year--energy woes, the struggling economy, and a historic California budget deficit. In one recent Los Angeles Times poll, nearly 4 in 10 Democrats said they were not impressed with Davis's leadership in his first term.

Two tenets of conventional wisdom will thus collide in California this year: On the one hand, we're told, conservatives can't win in the state. But on the other, neither can a deeply unpopular incumbent in times of economic difficulty.

LAST WEDNESDAY, March 6, when Richard Riordan finished a brief concession speech at a post-primary "unity breakfast," the first man on his feet, applauding enthusiastically, was Bill Simon. Moments later, Riordan stood between Simon and Bill Jones, the three posing like victorious boxers, their clasped hands held high. When photographers rushed to take pictures of the trio, Riordan graciously stepped aside, nudged Simon to the center, and brought full-circle one of the more bizarre primaries in recent memory.

When Bill Simon first began giving serious consideration to the governor's race in late 2000, he turned to Riordan for advice. Simon, the son of Nixon-era Treasury secretary William E. Simon, had been friends with the L.A. mayor for years. They attend the same church and share interests in politics and philanthropy. Riordan had no plans to run himself, and enthusiastically encouraged the nascent Simon for Governor campaign. In January 2001, Riordan hosted a dinner attended by many top California Republicans. He introduced Simon as a "potential gubernatorial candidate," and urged others to consider supporting his friend.

Simon's political experience was scant. He was a successful investor and generous philanthropist. He helped establish PAX-TV, the family-friendly television cable network, and served for a spell on the board of the Heritage Foundation. Before that, he had worked for three years under then-U.S. attorney Rudolph Giuliani in New York. Simon moved to Southern California in 1990 to set up a West Coast office of Simon and Sons, the investment firm he controlled with his father and brother, Peter.

Simon tapped his own network and Riordan's and, pleased with the feedback he was getting, set up a three-month exploratory committee and geared up for a campaign against Secretary of State Jones.

That summer, though, Riordan had a change of heart--one he says was inspired by the White House. Riordan received a call from President Bush on May 1. Reports at the time indicated that Bush wished Riordan a happy birthday and encouraged him to consider running for governor. "I think he sees this as a chance to revive the party, and the president was extremely encouraging and very persuasive," Riordan told the National Journal. "As you know, the Republican party in California has been an endangered species now for several years."

Others say the White House was not keen on any of the three, and simply settled on Riordan because he was most likely to give Davis a good race. Supporting Jones was never an option. After first backing Bush in the 2000 presidential primary, Jones made a high-profile switch to John McCain after McCain had shown himself to be a viable candidate.