Gray Davis and Bill Simon Jr. clashed over ethics, guns, the economy and the environment Monday in a scrappy gubernatorial debate that highlighted their differing styles as much as their disparate stances.
Republican Simon, seizing on his first face-to-face meeting with the incumbent, offered a sweeping indictment of the governor's nearly four years in office. He condemned the state of the public schools, California's business climate and Davis' personal probity, pledging to "do better, a lot better" if elected Nov. 5.
Democrat Davis, in turn, offered a virtual point-by-point dissection of Simon's positions on issues such as abortion and gun control, asserting that his GOP rival is out of step with the values of mainstream California. "I want to move us forward," Davis said. "Mr. Simon wants to move us backward and to the right."
There were no major gaffes and no startling revelations during the hourlong session, suggesting nothing that would immediately change the dynamic of the race with 28 days to go.
The session, hosted by the Los Angeles Times and held at its downtown headquarters, is so far the only debate scheduled between the two major-party nominees.
As promised, the Green Party candidate for governor, Peter Camejo, tried to enter the building about 45 minutes before the noon debate. He had been invited as a guest of Simon after The Times declined to ask Camejo or three other minor-party candidates to participate onstage.
Camejo quietly left the building after being turned away at the check-in desk, then joined a few dozen supporters in a demonstration on the sidewalk outside the newspaper.
Inside, Davis and Simon managed for the most part to be civil, but beneath that veneer their animosity occasionally showed through.
Their sharpest exchange occurred roughly midway through the debate, when each candidate was given the opportunity to directly question his rival.
Simon asked Davis, whose prodigious fund-raising has been an issue in the contest, whether he ever accepted a campaign contribution in his government office. Taking money under those circumstances would be illegal.
Davis--who served as an assemblyman, state controller and lieutenant governor before winning the state's top job four years ago--replied that he had always "conducted myself within the law."
He then added a sharp rejoinder: "You're not in any position to question anyone's ethics, Mr. Simon.... Do not throw rocks if you live in a glass house."
Simon, an investment banker whose business dealings have engendered several controversies, angrily rejected Davis' insinuation as "false and misleading in every regard."
The discussion briefly carried over after the debate, in the press briefing room outside the Times auditorium. Davis said he had "no recollection of every doing that" when asked by reporters about accepting contributions in his state office.
The Simon campaign asserted that one of its backers, a police and sheriff's group, gave $10,000 to Davis in his lieutenant governor's office during his last run for governor. The Simon campaign provided no proof, however, and Davis aides dismissed the charge as a campaign stunt.
The back-and-forth was one of the few to strike sparks in a session that served mostly to accentuate the understated, buttoned-down demeanor of the two leading gubernatorial hopefuls. Each man was meticulously coiffed and they wore nearly identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties.
Davis addressed the charisma question when asked why he was so unpopular with his fellow Democratic legislators in Sacramento. "Californians have entertainers, rock stars and athletes to entertain and inspire them," Davis replied. Political officeholders are expected simply "to get the job done," he said. "... I'm doing my job. I would like that people like me, but as long as my wife likes me, I'll live with that."
Davis returned to that theme of experience and competency throughout the debate, sometimes in a condescending way. "It's all very nice to talk the talk, but I've walked the walk," the governor said at one point, criticizing Simon--who is making his first try for office--for his failure to vote in several past elections.
At another point, Davis spoke of the difficulty of closing the state's recent $24-billion budget gap and criticized Simon for declining to say how he would have done it. "Welcome to the big time, Mr. Simon," the Democrat taunted. "The people of the state expect governors to make the tough decisions, not run from them."
Simon repeatedly sought to turn Davis' incumbency into a liability, suggesting that the problem facing Sacramento is "business as usual."
"What I want to bring is a breath of fresh air," Simon said, starting with a more rigorous ethical standard.
From his opening remarks, the GOP challenger painted an unremittingly grim picture of California. He described a place where failing public schools are infested with rats and cockroaches, a sagging economy is bleeding taxpayers dry and the governor has effectively auctioned off public policy to his most generous donors.
"Taxes have gone up, services have been cut, hopes have been crushed," Simon said.
Davis should apologize, Simon went on, for the "awful ethical tone" set by his administration as well as his handling of last year's electricity crisis. "He promised us no [utility] bankruptcies, no bailouts, no rate hikes," Simon said, "yet he's given us all three."
Davis responded by reeling off a series of upbeat statistics, including improved student test scores, a crime rate below the national average and the creation of nearly 1 million jobs in spite of the economic slowdown of the last two years. "Despite tough challenges ... we've made real progress in California in so many areas," Davis said.
As for his fund-raising, the governor said he would sign legislation to prohibit contributions during critical periods such as the bill-signing window in Sacramento--but only if there were limits on wealthy candidates such as Simon. Otherwise, Davis said, the only people who will be elected to public office will be self-funding millionaires.
The governor also pledged to cut back--but not cease--his aggressive fund-raising if elected to a second term. He declined to vow to serve a full four years if he wins reelection, however. "I have no intention for running for another office," Davis said. "... I'm not making a commitment, but I have no plans to do anything else."
As much as their differences on issues, the debate also highlighted the contrasting styles of the two candidates.
While Simon used broad statements in outlining his philosophy and assailing the governor, Davis put forth a raft of detail and frequently dwelt on government minutiae. He returned over and over to two issues--abortion and gun control--in an effort to paint Simon as ideologically extreme.
"Mr. Simon is a true-blue think-tank conservative," Davis said. "... He is simply out of step with the values of most Californians."
Simon opposes abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life. But he has said he would uphold existing California laws that allow abortion. And he said as much on Monday about gun control.
"When I take an oath as governor, I take an oath to enforce the law," Simon said, after noting his personal opposition to state laws restricting so-called Saturday night specials and limiting gun purchases to one a month.
"I don't choose," Simon went on. "I don't pick and choose which laws to enforce.... That's where my head is."
Davis, who has signed several laws expanding gun control and liberalizing abortion laws, responded sharply. "Trust me," he said. "Voters don't want to know if you're going to in some weak fashion enforce laws you don't agree with. They want to know where your heart is. And in his heart he is pro-gun. In his heart he is anti-choice. And I'm just the opposite."
The two candidates also differed over two pieces of first-in-the-nation legislation that Davis signed into law. One curbs tailpipe emissions to fight global warming; the second extends paid family leave to parents seeking time off after the birth of a child.
Simon said he would have vetoed both measures. While expressing concern about global warming, the GOP hopeful said the bill that Davis signed was too ambiguous and relied too heavily on bureaucrats to make it work. As for the family leave bill, Simon said it amounted to a tax on employees.
The family leave bill and another measure that requires businesses to pay overtime after eight hours of work were noble objectives but poorly executed, Simon said. "In both instances, those bills hurt workers."
The two candidates even managed to differ on their one point of agreement.
Davis defended his decision to veto controversial legislation to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, even as he vowed to sign a future version.
"The bill that was sent to me was massively flawed because it said if there was a warrant out for your arrest for treason, murder, espionage, rape or other serious crimes, you could still get a driver's license," Davis said. "... We want to confer this privilege on people who are making our economy stronger and taking jobs that many people otherwise wouldn't take, but we don't want to do it in a way that compromises public safety. "
Simon--who also opposed the legislation--nevertheless suggested that Davis had double-crossed Latino supporters who were counting on his signature.
"That's exactly why they withdrew their endorsement late last week," Simon said of the Legislature's Latino caucus. "That's exactly why they have trouble, because sometimes Mr. Davis has trouble with the truth."
Afterward, speaking to reporters, Simon called for more debates, noting that Davis participated in several when he ran for governor four years ago. Davis responded that he wasn't ruling out the possibility of another face-to-face meeting--but pointed out that incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson debated his opponent only a single time in 1994 and his predecessor, George Deukmejian, did not debate at all.
For complete text and video excerpts of Monday's debate, visit www.latimes.com/debate
Times staff writers Matea Gold, Jeffrey Rabin and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.