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Rivals Go After Davis' Latino Support

Politics: Simon, Green Party's Camejo tell activists they're taken for granted. Governor points to gains.


The two men hoping to unseat Gov. Gray Davis went after one of his core constituencies on Friday, telling a group of Latino leaders that Democrats have been taking them for granted.

Republican nominee Bill Simon Jr. and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo appealed for the votes of several hundred people attending the annual banquet of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Simon told the group that he would improve the state's school system and promised to support a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants, while Camejo said he would make buying a home easier and fight for higher wages for low-income workers. During their remarks, both candidates accused Davis, who spoke later in the evening, of ignoring issues dear to Latino voters.

The governor's aides predicted that Latino voters would stick with Democrat Davis, who won 77% of their vote in 1998.

"The bottom line is the governor has a very strong track record with the Latino community," said Davis spokesman Roger Salazar, adding that Davis has made it easier for families to get health insurance and access to higher education. "That's going to carry the day."

The aggressive wooing of a group that historically has voted at a fraction of its share of the electorate cheered activists seeking to boost Latino turnout at the polls. Friday's banquet at a Universal City hotel was designed to raise money for Southwest Voter's 2002 campaign, a nonpartisan effort to get 400,000 new Latinos to the polls nationwide this fall--50,000 in California.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the group, said that Latinos think independently, giving Republicans and third-party candidates opportunities to make inroads into a traditionally Democratic base.

"Does that mean that Latinos are going to vote for Republicans and Greens in the majority?" Gonzalez said. "No, I don't think so. The Democrats and Gov. Davis enjoy a huge margin in the Latino community. The question is: Can they maintain that?

"Let the competition begin," he added. "Our goal is to have all parties support the Latino agenda."

Emphasizing a commitment to education and small businesses, Simon vowed to spend the rest of his campaign seeking Latino support.

"I'm here to tell you that Gov. Davis is in for the fight of his life in this campaign, because I intend to compete flat out, 100%, for the votes of every single member of the Latino community in California," Simon said.

The GOP candidate noted his Catholic faith, shared by most California Latinos, and spoke several sentences in carefully enunciated Spanish. He said Davis has failed to improve the state's schools, hurting many Latino children. And Simon promised to make campuses the centerpieces of neighborhoods.

He also said he would enforce a recently passed state law that allows undocumented immigrants who have attended California high schools to pay the same tuition at state colleges as other in-state students. And he said he would support efforts to grant guest worker status to illegal immigrants, setting up a system for them to stay legally by obtaining green cards and ultimately citizenship.

"Our society must recognize once and for all that we are a state and a nation of immigrants," said Simon to enthusiastic applause.

Not all of his comments were as well received. "Is anyone here in favor of higher taxes?" the candidate asked, as he criticized the governor's latest budget proposal, which would raise them.

"Yes--for the rich!" shouted a table of Green Party members.

Camejo, a first-generation Venezuelan American, excoriated Davis for what he called "the decriminalization of corruption," accusing the governor of taking unethical campaign contributions.

The Green Party candidate said he would work to make it easier for people to afford a down payment for a home and would fight to raise the minimum wage. He also endorsed stalled legislation that would allow immigrants to apply for a driver's license, as well as a license amnesty for undocumented migrants.

"We have to remember that those people we call aliens are the people whose ancestors walked this earth 20,000 years ago," Camejo said.

He said he had a shot at winning broad support for his candidacy, noting the large share of voters in recent polls who said they disapprove of Davis' performance.

And Camejo praised Simon for including him in debates, dismissing speculation that Simon only wants him to take enough votes from disgruntled Davis supporters to hand the GOP candidate a victory.

"Bill and I are fighting for those voters, and he's stealing my votes," Camejo joked.

"During an address later that night, Davis touted a list of accomplishments he said have benefited California Latinos, punctuating his speech with Spanish phrases.

"Education is my passion," Davis said, "so I have worked mightily

And the governor said that because of his efforts, 300,000 more Latino children were enrolled in the Healthy Families program, which provides low-cost health insurance.

His campaign also released a new Spanish-language television ad in which Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante encourages voters to support Davis, saying the governor fought against Proposition 187, which would have slashed government services to illegal immigrants, and initiated a new relationship with Mexico.

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