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Dreary, Dollar-Driven Race

July 21, 2002

These are trying times for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. He seeks a second term amid a deficit-driven budget deadlock and the chaos of the state's electric power system. His job rating is in the pits, and the grim, colorless Davis is catching flak for obsessive fund-raising--$50 million for this campaign so far, with plenty more to come.

Still, Davis is well off because his Republican challenger is Bill Simon Jr., whose major claim to the governorship is that he has been a businessman and investor. What a year to make alleged business smarts the foundation of a candidacy.

From the outset, Simon has snubbed the public trust by refusing to release his income tax returns, something that is routine in major races. It's hard to tell whether he's even the successful steward of a family fortune that he claims to be. Trouble mounted for Simon when the Internal Revenue Service filed a lawsuit naming Simon and others as beneficiaries of an offshore tax shelter that the government says might be illegal.

Simon could have scored points by tackling the issue head-on last week, describing the investment candidly and in detail. But Simon obfuscated by saying, "Everybody looks to be tax-efficient." Most voters don't have the luxury or financial freedom to fret over their tax efficiency. They do want to know whether the candidate who seeks their trust pays a fair share of state and federal taxes.

Davis and money were in the news too. To get to $50 million, Davis took at least 15 contributions of $100,000 or more, including $251,000 from the prison guards union, whose members got Davis' approval of a hefty pay raise while other state employees got almost nothing. Most candidates running this year in California have to live within campaign funding limits enacted in 2000. But not Davis and other statewide candidates. Davis let it be known as the campaign finance bill moved through the Legislature that he would veto it if it did not exempt his 2002 campaign--his last run for governor under term limits--from contribution limits.

Davis also has shamelessly used his office for campaign photo ops, such as last week when he stood with Air National Guard personnel and an F-15C Eagle and appealed to Washington for more planes like it so he could combat terrorism on the California home front. True, there is probably not a breathing politician who would turn down a good photo op with a military airplane. (Well, maybe Michael Dukakis would think twice.) But a letter to the Pentagon would have sufficed.

Alas, this dreary campaign has more than three long, long months to run. Have we seen a healthy debate about energy policy? About the broken state budget process? About runaway growth and California's fragile, often threatened environment? No, no and no. It's all about money, Davis' behavior to get it and Simon's secrecy about how he handles it. We wish it were different but can't say it's likely to change.

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