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Simon Makes Pitch in Mexico, Promises More Cooperation

Politics: With an eye on the Latino vote, he vows to improve relations if elected. But some in his audience are skeptical and Davis gaffe follows him across the border.

October 12, 2002|MATEA GOLD and MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TIJUANA — After a tumultuous week of campaigning, Bill Simon Jr. went south of the border Friday, where the GOP gubernatorial candidate told Mexican officials and business leaders that he would work to better relations between California and its neighbor.

Speaking at a national conference on globalization here, Simon promised if elected to meet regularly with his counterpart in Baja California, help the federal government to improve trade and shorten delays at border crossings. He also met privately with Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy.

"As governor of California, it will be my solemn vow, solemn pledge to you today, to meet regularly with your governor to address mutual issues," the Republican businessman told several hundred people gathered at an upscale Tijuana hotel for a three-day economic development conference.

With Friday's trip, Simon attempted to raise his stature and appeal to Mexican Americans, most of whom tilt Democratic. His visit was similar to a tactic used by Gray Davis, who led a Democratic delegation to Mexico City when he was campaigning for governor in 1998 and promised a dramatically different relationship between Mexico and California.

Since his election, Davis has made at least four trips to Mexico, including one just four weeks after taking office.

Simon's outreach to Mexican leaders Friday got mixed reviews, with many conference participants complaining that his remarks were vague and his goals unclear.

"He did not bring a plan; he did not say what he was going to do," said Maria Vidal, the Tijuana director for the National Urban Alliance, and member of an umbrella civic organization that invited Simon. "It seems he just he wanted to come and show himself off. We don't want a governor who we can never get to understand the anxieties that we have on the border."

But Joaquin Aceves, the representative of a Tijuana business organization, said he hoped the candidate's remarks would lead to more cooperation on economic development projects along the border.

"We think that in a near future this could lead to a better relationship because the economy we have is so interdependent," Aceves said.

Only a handful of California reporters were alerted to Simon's trip, almost all of them members of the Spanish-language media. And Simon, who was lambasted this week for falsely accusing Davis of accepting a political donation in a state office, refused to take any questions in Tijuana, leaving an angry group of Mexican reporters in his wake.

In a later phone interview with The Times, Simon said there was not enough time to take questions. He said he wanted to focus on his speech and meeting with the governor.

"Anything that makes the economy of Mexico stronger I think is good for the state of California and the United States," he said, elaborating on his formal remarks.

Even with Simon out of the country, however, Davis continued to hammer him over his rival's accusation that he had illegally collected campaign cash in a state office. Actually, the check was turned over at a private home.

Davis insisted that the Republican candidate owes him an apology. On Thursday, Simon said he regretted the incident, but did not use the word "apology."

"You do not accuse a sitting governor of committing a crime unless you have all of the facts," Davis told reporters after a speech on health care at a hotel near LAX. "He had none of the facts. He turned out to be totally wrong. I'm sure he's embarrassed. But the least he could do is express an apology to the person he essentially defamed."

Simon said that his expression of regret would have to suffice.

"I guess they'll never be happy," he said in the phone interview, adding that he still wants an apology from Davis for the negative television commercials the governor has run. And he called for a change in the tenor of the race. "Really, at this point, with 25 days left, I think it's time to focus on the issues that affect people every day."

But Simon nonetheless had to field a barrage of additional criticism about his bungled accusation from conservative radio hosts usually supportive of his campaign.

During an interview on KMJ-AM (580) in Fresno, Simon tried to shift blame to the California Police and Sheriffs Organization, the group that gave Davis the check and released a picture purporting to show an illegal contribution. On Tuesday, however, Simon had called the photo "proof" that Davis broke the law.

"You're the man running the campaign," host Bill Manders told him in a tone of exasperation. "You're running for governor."

Later, Simon faced an intense interrogation on the "John and Ken Show" on KFI-AM (640) when he again tried to distance himself from the fiasco, blaming the release of the photo on COPS.

"This is their dog in the hunt," Simon said. "It was a mistake for us to be in the vicinity."

"In the vicinity?" shouted one of the hosts, both of whom have fiercely criticized Davis. "You turned the spotlight on it."

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