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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

GOP Could Do Worse Than Jones in Governor's Race

February 22, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Secretary of State Bill Jones--the last Republican standing--says he'll decide within three weeks whether to run for governor next year.

He's not literally the last Republican, of course, but it often seems that way looking around the Capitol, where Democrats vastly outnumber the GOP. He is the only Republican holding a statewide office.

The former Assembly minority leader and Fresno vegetable farmer has run twice statewide and won both races, but each time barely. Those close brushes, a bland personality and an inability--or unwillingness--to raise tons of political money are why Republicans are casting around for another candidate to challenge Gov. Gray Davis.

It'll be a favored topic of chatter at the party's state convention this weekend in Sacramento.

"Republicans need a brand new horse who's not tainted with the label 'Republican,' " says Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant who publishes the California Target Book, an insiders' tip sheet on political races. "I don't know whether such a person exists."

One potential outsider is Republican William E. Simon Jr., 49, a wealthy L.A. investment banker who has never run for office. He's poking around for support. Simon's biggest claims to fame are that he was a federal prosecutor in New York and his late father was U.S. treasury secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, another political neophyte, but with star appeal, says he may run if Davis looks vulnerable. But "The Terminator" may carry some personal baggage that could scare voters.

So what about Jones?

He's not exciting, but neither is Davis. He's solid, pleasant, experienced. Arguably the best secretary of state in decades: He brought the office online, and citizens can now find politicians' campaign finance reports on the Web. He has rooted out fraud and moved California toward touch-screen voting.

"What Bill Jones needs to do is step up and say, 'I want to be governor. Hey, I'm the guy,' " asserts GOP consultant Ray McNally. "Then I think we'd stop flirting with these exotic candidates."

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Jones acknowledges, "We're going to have to settle this up or down by the first week or two in March."

The March 2002 primary election is only a year off. Candidates must declare their intention to run by Nov. 7. Davis already had hoarded $26 million by Jan. 1. Jones had a scanty $118,000. "Bill Jones couldn't raise bus fare back to Fresno," says Garry South, Davis' chief strategist.

Jones, 51, insists he has enough money to launch a campaign. But until he decides whether to run, he refuses to hit up contributors. He's interviewing potential advisors--political mercenaries--and studying polls to assess his prospects.

"What you can't do is announce and then have people saying, 'Well, you know, he's crazy. There's no possible way.' Six weeks ago people would have said it's impossible."

Since then, the energy mess has been dumped on Davis and it just might bury him, Jones believes.

"The governor created this crisis, to a large extent, by his procrastination and timidity," says Jones, echoing not only the GOP mantra but the private complaints of many Democrats.

"The truth of the matter is," Jones continues, previewing a campaign theme, "this has been his approach on many issues."

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Jones' message on energy is conservative Republican: "There's just too many liberal Democrats who are in this mind set of socializing the energy business in California."

He strongly opposes state purchase of Edison and PG&E's power lines, as Davis is attempting. "That takes money from other commitments: highways, leaky school roofs, water."

His solution for rescuing the utilities: State loans, backed by the companies' assets--power lines, hydro plants--as collateral. Require their parents to kick in money. "I'm not for giving them a free ride. This ought not to be a bailout or a buyout. It ought to be a workout."

Then he'd move back as closely as possible to the old system that existed before Sacramento, in 1996, imposed the deregulation debacle. Fortunately for Jones, he'd left the Legislature by then. "We need to return to something that parallels that and have the PUC regulating [utilities]," Jones says. He'd also encourage building of power plants.

Jones has his own political baggage: Backers of President Bush still are miffed because he defected to Sen. John McCain last winter. Also, although he's not passionate about it, Jones opposes abortion rights and gun controls.

But, notes GOP analyst Tony Quinn, "Bill Jones would give the Republicans a very credible, professional candidate who wouldn't embarrass them."

You can't always bank on that with some guy who's never run before, no matter how rich.

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