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Davis Is More Than a Taxing Problem for Simon

April 22, 2002|BILL WHALEN | Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, worked on Richard Riordan's gubernatorial exploratory committee in 2001.

As the underdog in the governor's race, Bill Simon Jr. faces a challenge of Himalayan proportions. The political climate in California is harsh, particularly for novice climbers and conservatives. Amid a controversy over his personal income taxes, can Simon weather the first storm?

Last week, Simon filed for an extension on his federal income taxes, with his campaign saying the information would be kept private. Gov. Gray Davis immediately pounced, telling reporters: "Part of running for governor is making available your tax return so people can see you're paying your fair share." Simon responded by likening Davis to a hybrid of Karl Marx and Big Brother.

The tax flap suggests two trends in this election--neither to Simon's benefit.

One is the question of who better defines whom. When it's over, $100 million may have been invested in this campaign--maybe the most ever spent to ask two questions. For Davis: "Can you trust Bill Simon?" For Simon: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Last week should have been Simon's to howl, with lots of negative news out of Sacramento about bad government and a bad economy. The state apparently can't meet the Proposition 98 "guarantee" for school funding; health insurance rates may go up by double digits after mammoth increases approved by the California Public Employees' Retirement System; taxpayers are stuck with as much as $41 million in unneeded database software thanks to an unprecedented no-bid contract between the Davis administration and Oracle Corp.

Instead of batting these softballs, Simon was bogged down in tax hell, campaign-style. He can't afford many more weeks like this. He has to make the contest a referendum on the incumbent's record, not his own integrity. The first challenge facing every candidate of considerable wealth is to demonstrate working-class values and concerns. The image of a millionaire "hiding" his tax return is poison.

The second bad trend for Simon is one of media perception.

Right from the start, there was the whispering that the White House didn't like Simon, as he wasn't the president's first choice in the March primary. (Richard Riordan was.) Bush's visit to Northern California later this month is, in part, an attempt to put that to rest.

Simon has to show that his campaign will make history, not repeat it.

Four years ago, Davis came storming out of the primary, painting another conservative Republican, Dan Lungren, as an extremist. Davis has attempted the same at Simon's expense--on abortion and now, to a degree, as a tax sneak.

The quicker that Simon fights Davis, the quicker he dispels the idea that Davis calls all the shots in this campaign.

California Republicans do have one luxury: Time is on their side. Davis soon will unveil his "May revise" to the state budget, offering a new reality of spending options. Following that will be a summer of budget decisions with the sort of action verbs--"cut," "slash," "eliminate"--that no incumbent enjoys.

If Simon is lucky, the question of his fair tax share may seem less important to Californians wondering what happened to their fair share of government services.

But if the focus remains strictly on Bill Simon, then there won't be enough Sherpas in all of California to get him up the mountain.

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