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Davis Narrowly Defeats Simon; L.A. Breakup Fails

Times Staff Writer

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis inched past Republican Bill Simon Jr. on Tuesday to win a grudging second term amid a wave of discontent that kept voters home and gave minor parties their best showing in years.

His surprisingly narrow victory capped a gnawing night that saw the lead trade hands several times as the candidates hunkered out of sight with their families and strategists, nervously watching television and poring over election returns.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 7, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 07, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 304 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption -- A caption accompanying a photo of secession opponents in some editions of Wednesday’s Section A misspelled the name of the executive director of the Latin American Civic Assn. Her name is Irene Tovar, not Irenen.

Davis, part of a potential Democratic sweep of statewide offices, finally emerged close to midnight. At just about the same time, Simon was conceding at his headquarters hotel across town.

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To cheers of “four more years,” Davis thanked his supporters and extended a hand to Simon, asking for a round of applause from his own partisans. “I want to thank all of California,” the 59-year-old governor said. “I thank them for the opportunity to finish the job.

“I promise you to work as hard as I can,” Davis said, looking more relieved than exultant. He added that it had been a long election day.

Simon, accompanied by his wife, conceded before a crowd of dispirited supporters. “It doesn’t look like the numbers are going to be quite there for us this time,” he said.

“I want to continue to devote myself and I know that Cindy feels the same way,” said the 51-year-old Los Angeles businessman, who stumbled through his first run for public office. “To helping this great Golden State search out avenues that maybe we might be of service in the coming years.”

Three Democratic incumbents--Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides--appeared to retain their seats as a Republican wave that swept the country stopped short of the California border.

Each tallied more votes than the governor, a slap at Davis and a reversal of the usual trend that sees a falloff as voters work their way down the ballot.

Democrats Kevin Shelley and John Garamendi were leading in contests for secretary of state and insurance commissioner. The lone Republican preventing a Democratic sweep was Tom McClintock, who was running neck and neck with Steve Westly in the race for state controller.

Despite the recession, California voters appeared to be in generous spirits. They approved statewide ballot measures to fix the state’s crumbling public schools and address some of California’s pressing water needs.

Proposition 49, an effort by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote after-school programs, won easy passage.

An initiative to allow voters to register at the polls on election day was losing. Also headed for defeat was a measure to shift a portion of the state motor vehicle tax to pay for transportation projects.In the state’s most closely watched congressional race, Democratic Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza of Atwater opened a substantial lead over state Sen. Dick Monteith of Modesto in his bid to replace scandal-scarred Rep. Gary Condit (D-Ceres).

Elsewhere, attorney and Democratic labor leader Linda T. Sanchez was poised to make history by winning a newly drawn congressional seat in southeast Los Angeles County. She was leading in early returns and stands to join Loretta Sanchez, a Garden Grove Democrat, as the first sister team ever to serve in the House.

Democrats maintained their substantial advantage in the state Legislature, even with the loss of at least two Assembly seats.

But the party looked to be thwarted in its effort to pick up a state Senate seat that would have given it a supermajority of 26 in Sacramento’s upper chamber.

In the governor’s race, Davis and Simon were each hoping to make history in their own fashion.

The incumbent Democrat was vying to lead a party sweep down the statewide ballot. If successful, it would be the first partisan blowout since 1946, when Republicans seized every office. The last time Democrats swept was in 1882.

Simon, in turn, had been hoping to make Davis the first incumbent denied a second term since 1942, when Democrat Culbert Olson lost to Republican Earl Warren.

The contest was historic in at least one sense: The combined third-party vote may be the strongest since Commonwealth-Progressive candidate Raymond L. Haight got 13% of the vote in 1934.

Indeed, a Los Angeles Times exit poll found ample evidence of the widespread grumbling that became a soundtrack for this discontented election season.

Voters had overwhelmingly unfavorable impressions of both Davis and Simon, with roughly six in 10 expressing negative views about the two major party candidates. A like number, about 60%, disapproved of Davis’ job performance over the past four years while just about half of voters said the state was heading down the wrong track.

Asked to compare the two on issues, at least a quarter of those interviewed picked neither candidate when asked who would do a better job on energy, homeland security, crime and the economy. Asked which candidate had more honesty and integrity, fully a third of voters said neither.

For all that, Davis forces celebrated a victory that continued the Democrats’ hegemony in California, where the party has now won four straight top-of-the-ticket races.

A contest that was tighter than expected did not seem to dampen the spirit of Davis donors and supporters who converged on the Century Plaza Hotel by the hundreds.

Big donors -- from business executives to labor leaders -- came to party, and party they did. From the basement ballroom where the official celebration got underway at 8 p.m. to the penthouse suite, Cabinet secretaries, down-ballot candidates and other Democrats watched returns and celebrated the anticipated Davis victory. The governor arrived at the hotel around 9 p.m., after a leisurely dinner at the nearby St. Regis Hotel with about 20 supporters.

In an 18th-floor suite, Davis, dressed in a dark suit with an American flag lapel pin, held hands and talked with his wife, Sharon, as they watched returns on a television set.

For their part, Republicans were heartened by early returns that showed the contest much closer than many had expected.

By 8:30 p.m., about 100 Republicans milled around a ballroom in the LAX Westin Hotel, where Simon was holding his election night party. The room was bare-bones, by campaign celebration standards: no spangly streamers or red, white and blue balloons festooned the walls. Instead, a large California flag was draped behind an empty stage, adorned only with an American flag and a Simon placard stuck on a lectern.

The gubernatorial candidate remained sequestered in a second-floor suite with his family and campaign consultants Sal Russo and Ed Rollins. At 9 p.m., a crowd clustered around a large screen TV in the ballroom erupted in cheers and people punched their fists in the air as a television station showed Simon with a slight edge in a batch of early returns, 46% to 45%.

The unexpectedly narrow loss made it all the more agonizing for Republicans, many of whom asserted a better candidate could have easily beaten Davis.

“This election is a tragic lost opportunity,” said Arnold Steinberg, a GOP strategist who sat out the governor’s race. “Davis was a classic vulnerable incumbent who generated little enthusiasm, even among his base ... Republicans simply needed an adequate campaign, not a brilliant one.”

Many Californians expressed their attitude toward the two major candidates by simply not voting.

Heading into Tuesday, the secretary of state forecast about 8.8 million of the state’s 15.2 million registered voters would cast ballots, a turnout that translated to 58% and tied the record low set four years ago.

But anecdotal evidence suggested the turnout could be even lower.

At closing time, voter turnout at 30 sample precincts in Los Angeles County was 45.5%, down from 53.4% at the same time in the November 1998 general election.

In a sense, Davis and Simon were battling not just one another but a mood -- a combination of apathy and antipathy -- that hung over the election like a dank fog.

After a smooth start to his administration, thanks in good part to the roaring economy, Davis’ political fortunes rapidly soured with the onset of the state’s prolonged electricity crisis.

His problems were compounded this year by a $23.6-billion recession-induced budget deficit--barely papered over after a two-month standoff--and a series of revelations about his aggressive fund-raising tactics.

The governor’s political strategists decided early on that Davis would never win a contest based on his popularity. So instead he set out to destroy his opponents, starting in the Republican primary when he intervened with a $10-million ad blitz that helped topple the front-runner, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

That left the more conservative and inexperienced Simon as Davis’ November opponent.

While the GOP nominee struggled to raise cash and rally support within his own dispirited party, Davis dominated the television airwaves with a series of advertisements that hammered his rival over his controversial business dealings and frequent campaign missteps.

The result was a pair of battered and bruised candidates that, surveys showed, left many Californians feeling little affection toward either. Michelle Allman, a 26-year-old homemaker from Bloomington in San Bernardino County, said she headed to the polls Tuesday morning with one vote in mind: anybody but the two candidates everyone’s been talking about.

“All I cared about was voting for someone besides Davis or Simon,” she said while waiting at an Inland Empire car wash. “I saw their names, skipped right past them and went to the other ones, and then I did an ‘eeny, meeny, miney, mo.’ I don’t even remember the name of the guy I voted for. Because it didn’t matter.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voters’ impression of gubernatorial race

Q: Which issues were most important to you in deciding how you would vote?*

Gray Davis voters

Education -- 47%

Health care -- 20%

Economy/jobs -- 18%

Bill Simon voters

Ethics -- 30%

Education -- 22%

State budget -- 21%

Q: Why did you vote for your candidate?*

Davis voters

Best of a bad lot -- 34%

Most experienced -- 26%

Cares about people like me -- 15%

Simon voters

Best of a bad lot -- 37%

Has new ideas -- 14%

Agrees with me on the issues -- 14%

Q: When did you decide how you would vote?

Davis voters

Before last weekend -- 81%

Weekend or later -- 19%

Simon voters

Before last weekend -- 79%

Weekend or later -- 21%

Q: What is your impression of ...

Gray Davis

Favorable -- 40%

Unfavorable -- 60%

Bill Simon

Favorable -- 36%

Unfavorable -- 64%

Q: How is Gray Davis handling his job as governor?

Approve -- 39%

Disapprove -- 61%

Q: Which candidate do you think would be better on handling ...

Public education

Davis -- 46%

Simon -- 29%

Neither/both -- 25%

California’s economy

Davis -- 35%

Simon -- 36%

Neither/both -- 29%

Homeland security

Davis -- 34%

Simon -- 32%

Neither/both -- 34%

Crime

Davis -- 34%

Simon -- 33%

Neither/both -- 33%

The energy situation

Davis -- 29%

Simon -- 38%

Neither/both -- 33%

Q: Do you think things in California are generally ...

Among all voters

Going in the right direction -- 49%

Seriously off on the wrong track -- 51%

Among Davis voters

Going in the right direction -- 82%

Seriously off on the wrong track -- 18%

Among Simon voters

Going in the right direction -- 18%

Seriously off on the wrong track -- 82%

Q: Do you think California’s economy these days is doing ...

Among all voters

Very well -- 5%

Fairly well -- 48%

Fairly badly -- 38%

Very badly -- 9%

Among Davis voters

Very well -- 8%

Fairly well -- 56%

Fairly badly -- 31%

Very badly -- 5%

Among Simon voters

Very well -- 2%

Fairly well -- 42%

Fairly badly -- 43%

Very badly -- 13%

Q: During the next six months, do you think California’s economy will ...

Among all voters

Get better -- 37%

Remain the same -- 43%

Get worse -- 20%

Among Davis voters

Get better -- 44%

Remain the same -- 42%

Get worse -- 14%

Among Simon voters

Get better -- 35%

Remain the same -- 44%

Get worse -- 21%

*Top three mentions in multiple-response questions.

Notes: Based on preliminary exit poll results. Numbers may not total 100% where multiple responses were accepted or some answer categories are not shown.

How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll interviewed 3,436 voters as they left 60 polling places across California during voting hours Tuesday. Precincts were chosen based on the pattern of turnout in past statewide elections. The survey was by a confidential, self-administered questionnaire in English and Spanish. The margin of sampling error for percentages based on the entire sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points; for some subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Because the survey does not include absentee voters or those who declined to participate when approached, actual returns and demographic estimates by the interviewers were used to adjust the sample slightly. Interviews at the precinct level were conducted by Davis Research of Calabasas.

Times poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll

*

Times staff writers John Glionna, Matea Gold, Scott Gold, Gregg Jones, John Mitchell, Jeffrey L. Rabin and Kenneth Reich contributed to this report.


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