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In Race's Final Laps, Davis and Simon Debate on the Run

The gubernatorial rivals clash at long distance on the issues of education and integrity.

October 27, 2002|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

Gray Davis and Bill Simon Jr. clashed at long distance Saturday over personal integrity and the state of California's schools, as the race for governor headed into its final full week of campaigning.

Democratic Gov. Davis used a series of appearances before supporters across the Southland to boast of a turnabout in public education and to criticize his Republican rival's failure to vote in several past elections.

"It's all very nice to say, 'I'm for parks and I'm for schools,' but you've got to walk the walk and vote," Davis told an enthusiastic Burbank audience attending the state convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Simon, hopscotching from Los Angeles to the Bay Area to the Central Valley, said "California's education system is broken," and he seized on Davis' latest spate of negative TV ads to challenge the governor's credibility. Davis began airing a renewed series of spots attacking Simon's business record after campaign strategists earlier announced plans to run nothing but positive advertisements until election day, Nov. 5.

"It only took him a week to break his word," Simon said at a Burlingame convention of community college students. "That's a world's record even for Davis."

There are no more face-to-face debates scheduled in the gubernatorial campaign. So with just 10 days left, the candidates resorted to the staples of the home-stretch: a barrage of TV ads buttressed with a batch of public appearances designed to inspire their most fervent backers and try to coax them to the polls.

For Davis, that meant appearances at the NAACP convention in Burbank, a rally with Asian American supporters in Monterey Park and a stop with firefighters at a Democratic Party branch office in Pasadena.

Simon began the day at a Los Angeles prayer breakfast with supporters from the religious community. He then traveled to stops in Burlingame and a precinct walk in Modesto.

Although the NAACP does not make endorsements, the sentiment of its leadership was obvious when Davis showed up Saturday. "I had to be nice yesterday" when Simon appeared, said the California branch president, Alice Huffman, a longtime Democratic activist. "I don't have to be nice today."

She praised Davis for his work on education, a thread the governor picked up when he spoke to the crowd of about 200 delegates. Claiming credit for rising test scores, increased teacher pay and greater accessibility to higher education for poor and minority students, Davis said, "Yes, we have a long way to go, but we're on the right track, my friends."

At roughly the same time, Simon was in Burlingame, a suburb of San Francisco, offering a diametrically different portrait of the state's schools. Speaking to about 150 community college students at their semiannual leadership conference, Simon cited crumbling facilities, millions of failing students and a lack of accountability as symptoms of an education policy that has left California schools in a shambles.

"We are not teaching our kids adequately," said Simon. "We can't have toleration for mediocrity. We can't have toleration for failure."

Simon scrapped his lengthy prepared remarks, which bristled with anti-Davis rhetoric, in favor of a more low-key, conversational tone. Appearing with his wife, Cindy, Simon referred to community colleges as "the crown jewel" of California's public education system, serving as a bridge between high school and four-year universities as well as a second-opportunity stop for professionals seeking new career avenues.

He criticized the governor -- whom he repeatedly referred to as "Mr. Davis" -- for cutting tens of millions of dollars in community college funds as part of his solution for closing the state's $23.6-billion budget deficit. But during an often contentious question-and-answer session with students afterward, Simon acknowledged the fiscal difficulties that are still straitjacketing Sacramento.

Asked about raising community college funding to a level equal to spending on the University of California and state university systems -- which would more than triple the current budget -- Simon said he could not make that promise. "I don't think that would be realistic," he said, suggesting the next governor will face "tough decisions" in light of continued budget problems.

While faulting Davis' "mismanagement" for the crunch, Simon would not commit to restoring millions of dollars in teacher bonuses that were suspended for this academic year as another budget-balancing step. Simon merely said he would favor renewing the program "as soon as we can."

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