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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Jones Goes From Spotlight to GOP Doghouse

March 16, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It was a blast while the bash lasted. Then came the morning after, the cold reality and the sobering. The unfriendly stares and pointed scoldings.

You got carried away, went too far.

"I'd do it again," says Bill Jones.

The California secretary of state misbehaved in the rudest way for a politician: He went back on his word. Jones had committed his support to the party establishment candidate, George W. Bush. Then he got intoxicated with John McCain. And he ditched the Texan for the charismatic underdog.

Jones had a terrific time. He caught the attention of national TV hosts. The relatively obscure state official was invited on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," "Inside Politics," "Hardball," "Fox News Sunday". . . .

Surprisingly for many who'd known him for years, Jones looked and sounded great--not like the bland Fresno vegetable farmer everybody remembered but articulate and animated.

He was in the TV lens at virtually every McCain campaign stop in California. Then they held the election.

McCain lost. Jones quietly came home to Sacramento. And he's been hearing it ever since from fellow Republicans.

"A lot of people weren't pleased," he notes in an understatement.

*

Virtually every GOP pol I've talked to--not only Bush loyalists, but McCain supporters and Jones allies--say Jones has badly damaged himself within the party. They acknowledge that he got invaluable TV face time and broke out of the common political herd, gaining sorely needed name ID and establishing himself as an independent free thinker. But all that is outweighed by his switching sides in mid-battle, they contend.

"I can't begin to tell you how many little old lady Republicans I've seen at meetings who are just really, really angry," says a veteran GOP legislator.

The consensus is that Jones, 50, has hurt his prospects of running for governor in 2002. "If his idea is to run against Gray [Davis], I don't know where he gets the money," concedes an ally.

One major money contributor told Jones to take his name out of the Rolodex. Several Republican donors reportedly have upbraided him.

Legislators have scrubbed plans to feature Jones at their own fund-raisers.

State Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno), a hometown cohort of Jones, is one of the few Republicans who will speak on the record. "Some say Bill's timing was opportunistic, switching after [McCain's big victory in] the New Hampshire primary when the winds seemed to shift," says Poochigian, a Bush backer. "Bill knows I was both disappointed and bewildered."

Opportunistic. That's not like Jones. Naive would be a better description.

Bewildered. Many people are. And Jones has had a hard time explaining exactly why he did commit the cardinal political sin.

*

His reasoning is that Bush in South Carolina was berating the independents and Democrats who were crossing party lines to vote for McCain. And he admired McCain's appeal to those crossover voters.

"Our message has to be that independents and crossovers are welcome," Jones says. "If we don't go after them, they'll vote for a Democrat and it's hard to get them back in November. Our 35% of the electorate is getting smaller and smaller. The truth is, we've been losing elections as a party in California. As I've gone around the state speaking to groups, I've become a Republican wailing wall.

"I felt John McCain could help us. He brings a tremendous energy that the party hasn't seen in a long, long time.

"Do you follow me?"

Well, no, respond many Republicans. They still don't get it--get why this justifies reneging on a commitment.

Perhaps they'll be more sympathetic if Bush loses in November.

But for Jones to patch things up, many say, he'll now need to strongly back the party nominee.

"I was upset with Bill," says Gerry Parsky, a West L.A. investment manager, GOP contributor and California chairman of the Bush campaign. "But now I'm reaching out to him to help us attract as many McCain supporters as possible."

At some point, the California GOP also will need to take a deep breath and consider this: So far, Jones looks like their best bet to run a respectable--even if likely losing--race against Davis. He has been an excellent secretary of state, moving that formerly paper-shuffling office into the computer era and launching several voter registration programs.

Jones may have been a party boor. But he also could be the only life of the party in 2002.

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