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The State

Candidates Stake Out Common Ground

Politics: Bill Simon Jr. and Peter M. Camejo aim attacks at the governor rather than each other.

September 18, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a debate most notable for the absence of Gov. Gray Davis, Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. and Green Party candidate Peter M. Camejo took pains Tuesday to find common ground as they laid out radically different agendas for California.

On immigration, civil rights, crime and other issues, Simon and Camejo avoided attacks on one another and pounded the Democratic incumbent instead.

Davis has "put a for-sale sign on Sacramento," Camejo said, echoing one of Simon's main campaign themes. "It's all based on money."

Simon used the Beverly Hills debate to elevate the stature of a Green Party candidate who has barely registered in the polls, but who could siphon votes from Davis, a centrist Democrat.

The debate produced the unlikely spectacle of Simon, a self-described "conservative Republican," heaping praise on a onetime Berkeley radical who favors legalization of marijuana and higher taxes on the rich.

"Peter is in this race for the right reasons," Simon said. "He cares about people, and he cares about making sure that he's got real ideas and real solutions."

The debate was sponsored by New California Media, an association of ethnic media organizations, and the Greenlining Institute, a coalition of minority groups that promotes economic development in the state's urban areas.

Greenlining Institute leaders criticized Davis for rejecting their invitation to debate, saying it showed disrespect.

"It's sad to report that Gov. Davis has consistently snubbed minorities," said Paul Turner, senior program manager at the Greenlining Institute.

Davis spokesman Roger Salazar said the governor had shown respect to minority voters with his actions, including a minimum wage hike and expanded access to health care and higher education. He said Davis would debate Simon once or twice in October.

"Respect doesn't have anything to do with whether you show up to a Greenlining event," Salazar said.

Much of the debate focused on racial issues. Both Camejo and Simon spoke out against traffic stops based upon race.

"It's against everything our country was founded on," Simon said.

But on other issues, Camejo and Simon offered contrasting opinions.

On immigrant rights, Camejo said he would sign two bills awaiting Davis' signature or veto: One would provide driver's licenses to undocumented workers, and the other would give farm workers the right to mediation of stalled contract talks with growers.

Camejo said he would sign them "in protest," because the Legislature had "watered down" both measures at Davis' behest.

Simon, however, said he opposed both bills. He said he could not sign the driver's license measure in the absence of "comprehensive immigration reform." He also said there was already an "appropriate balance" between farm workers and growers in contract talks.

More broadly, Camejo called for legalization of undocumented immigrants to abolish the "caste system" in California. Simon said he favored a guest worker program advocated by President Bush.

One question stumped both candidates: What was their stand on the Nov. 5 ballot proposals for the secession of Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley from Los Angeles?

"I haven't been able to really figure it out," said Camejo, who lives outside Oakland in Walnut Creek.

"I'm glad you said that, Peter," Simon interrupted.

"Honesty once in a while is good," Camejo responded.

"That was what you learned in the '60s," Simon said.

Camejo, chief executive of the Progressive Asset Management investment firm, said he leans against secession for fear it could harm the poor. But Simon, who moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey 12 years ago, took no position on secession.

Nearly absent from the debate was one of the main lines of attack Davis has used against Simon: allegations that the GOP nominee has been an incompetent businessman. Davis' argument was blunted last week when a judge tossed aside a fraud verdict against Simon's family investment firm--a case Simon mentioned when asked to define corporate misconduct.

"I'm glad it's not last week at this time," Simon responded with a chuckle. "I would say that corporate misconduct is well-defined in the laws."

Simon also borrowed a Davis campaign tactic on the state budget. After weathering criticism that he had failed to say how he would balance the books amid a $24-billion deficit, Simon asked Camejo where he would find funding for his proposals, which include universal health care.

Camejo's response: higher taxes for the rich and a windfall of up to $3 billion from the legalization of marijuana. He did not explain how he arrived at the figure.

On crime, Simon reiterated his support for the death penalty, which Camejo opposes. But Simon also said he could "understand why people would consider" a moratorium on capital punishment.

The debate sponsors did not invite any of the other minor-party candidates: Iris Adam of the Natural Law Party, Gary David Copeland of the Libertarian Party, and Reinhold Gulke of the American Independent Party.

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