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California and the West

Secretary of State Jones Seeks GOP Nomination to Face Davis in 2002

Politics: Low-key candidate says he'll campaign on education, economy and quality of life. He calls the governor 'part of the problem' on energy.

March 27, 2001|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Secretary of State Bill Jones, the only Republican left in statewide office, launched a bid for governor Monday with a blast at incumbent Gray Davis and the unlikely admission that campaigning was not something he savored.

Speaking at a round-table session with reporters in Sacramento, Jones said he would make three issues the key to his bid for the GOP nomination in 2002: education, the economy and the quality of life for future generations of Californians.

But he wasted little time before taking after Democrat Davis on the state's energy crisis.

"There's a time to lead, follow or get out of the way," Jones said. "When you procrastinate to the point where you become part of the problem, that's exactly where we are today."

However, Jones offered little in the way of a solution, beyond stating his preference for a "private-sector . . . workout model" as opposed to a state bailout or a public buyout of California's cash-strapped utilities.

Promising details later, Jones declined to answer questions about rate hikes or a cap on wholesale power prices--two options being pressed by Democratic officials--pending a state audit of the Department of Water Resources, which is responsible for buying electricity on the spot market.

Despite his curiously low-key announcement, Jones, 51, instantly established himself as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, thanks to his familiarity among Republican voters and nearly 20 years in public office--a record he cited when asked to compare himself to others who may run in the primary.

William E. Simon Jr., a Los Angeles investment banker and political neophyte, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger are both exploring possible candidacies, but no one other than Jones has said he or she will run.

A race against Davis would pit two candidates with similar personalities--both are decidedly uncharismatic--but dramatically different approaches to public life.

While the incumbent governor is a voracious fund-raiser and cunning political strategist, Jones, by his own admission, is more adept at the 9-to-5 duties of political office. His track record running statewide is not particularly impressive, given his two cliffhanging victories against weak opponents.

"It's the policy I enjoy. It's the people [I] enjoy. The politics you take along with it," Jones said Monday. "It's not something I live and breathe for."

For some Republicans, that distaste for political combat is a cause of concern. They note that Jones had a paltry $118,000 in his campaign fund as of January, compared to Davis' $27 million. But Jones vowed to raise enough cash to make himself competitive and said, "If money was everything, I suppose it would be Gov. Checchi now rather than Gov. Davis."

In 1998, businessman Al Checchi spent $40 million in a failed bid to win the Democratic primary against Davis and fellow millionaire Jane Harman.

Substantively, Jones is widely credited with a number of innovations since being elected secretary of state in November 1994. As chief elections officer, he established a highly regarded election Web site, increased public disclosure of campaign contributions by posting records on the Internet, and cleaned up the state's outdated voter rolls.

"He is seen as a very, very valuable leader within this organization," said Kay Albowicz, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan National Assn. of Secretaries of State, who called Jones "one of the few secretaries of state who is highly regarded by both [political] sides."

Jones made his name as a loyal party soldier, but he demonstrated a rare bit of incaution in last year's presidential primaries when he withdrew his endorsement of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and switched his support to Arizona Sen. John McCain. Although McCain's candidacy was almost certainly doomed, Jones said he was troubled by Bush's exclusionary message during the bitter South Carolina primary, when Bush faulted McCain for reaching out to Democrats and independent voters.

Bush allies remain cool toward Jones but McCain said during a recent California visit he would "absolutely" support Jones in the GOP primary and "do everything I can to help."

A onetime rancher from the San Joaquin Valley, Jones served 10 years in the state Assembly, where he compiled a solidly conservative record opposing new taxes, abortion rights and gun control. In 1994, his final year in the state Legislature, he was the author of California's popular three-strikes anti-crime bill.

Jones is being forced to give up his current job because of term limits.

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Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this story.

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