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Voters Cool as Candidates Warm to Task

Politics: Both Simon and Davis appeal for support and pick up Labor Day themes on the traditional kickoff day for fall campaigns.

September 03, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a day steeped in political tradition, Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Bill Simon Jr. on Monday reached back to their party roots, rallying loyalists and striving to muster some rare voter enthusiasm in their contest for governor.

For Davis, that meant appearances at a series of union-sponsored rallies up and down the state, where he assailed Simon, selectively touted his record on behalf of working men and women--and braved hecklers urging him to sign a disputed farm labor bill.

For Simon, the day brought a journey to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in conservative Orange County and a trip to the State Fair in Sacramento, where he attacked Davis, showed off his family--and fended off questions about his ethics.

Yet despite the stakes in November and a series of major events--from Sept. 11 to the stock market swoon and scandals in corporate America and the Catholic church--Californians seemed decidedly uninspired as the calendar reached Labor Day, the customary kickoff for the fall campaign.

A survey released last week found that fewer than half of likely voters were happy with the choice between Davis and Simon. That sentiment was repeatedly seconded Monday, even as the candidates pressed for advantage.

Rosario Valdez, a banquet waitress who showed up at the governor's breakfast stop at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, referred to Davis as "the lesser of two evils." Deborah Spencer, her companion and a fellow union member, chimed in, "He doesn't seem to be for the working class. It's mostly the businessman, the ones who have the money."

Over at the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, 34-year-old Derrick Washington said he planned to bypass the governor's race when he votes Nov. 5. "I really don't think we have a good candidate to vote for," said Washington, who was visiting the library with a friend before Simon arrived. "Bill Simon just had that [legal] judgment against his family's firm.... Davis has just been raising money."

With that disgruntlement as a backdrop, the candidates were embarking on a nine-week home stretch of campaigning that will culminate Nov. 5, when voters also sort out a host of other contentious questions.

In Los Angeles, voters will adjudicate the biggest municipal divorce case ever, as secessionists in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley attempt to break away and establish separate cities. The vote will be the culmination of nearly 30 years of activism by Valley residents, many of whom feel disconnected from the political power structure at downtown City Hall.

The Hollywood measure is a relative newcomer, piggybacking on the Valley's efforts mostly because of the money and energy of a wealthy nightclub owner, Gene La Pietra, who is also running for the City Council of a breakaway Hollywood.

On the state level, a certain amount of turnover in Sacramento is guaranteed as a result of term limits, with 20 state Senate seats and 80 Assembly races on the ballot. (However, a party-protection plan adopted by lawmakers when they redrew the state political boundaries last year all but ensures little change in the partisan lineup.)

Voters will also elect 53 House members--again, with little true competition--and fill seven statewide offices in addition to governor: lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller, secretary of state, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction. The last four are open seats, because of term limits.

In addition, Californians will consider six statewide ballot initiatives, including $15 billion in bond measures and others that would allow election-day voter registration and expand the availability of tutoring and after-school programs.

Labor Frames Attacks

But the marquee race is the contest for governor, and the two leading contenders seized on Monday's campaign marker--and the attendant media attention--to outline themes and reiterate the attacks they have been sounding for the past six months.

In a speech booming over loudspeakers at sweltering MacArthur Park near downtown Los Angeles, Davis portrayed Simon as an enemy of working people and paid tribute to those who "sew our clothes," "toil in the fields" and "build our buildings."

"For the last 16 years, working Californians have not had a friend in the governor's office," said Davis, referring to the two Republican administrations that preceded his election in 1998. "But now they do have a friend in the governor's office, and now they have a seat at the table. California is finally working for working Californians again."

Davis extolled his record on labor issues, taking credit for a boost in the state minimum wage, restoration of mandatory overtime at the end of an eight-hour workday and an increase in the state benefits paid to workers injured on the job.

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