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Simon Woos Farmers

Times Staff Writers

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. trundled by bus through California’s farmland Monday, touting an endorsement from an influential farm organization as he accused Gov. Gray Davis of ignoring the needs of the state’s agriculture industry.

“We would be an impoverished state, in so many ways, without our farmers,” Simon said at an early morning news conference in the musty warehouse of a Bakersfield tractor dealership.

“And that’s why it saddens me -- in fact, it angers me -- to see Gray Davis continually neglect the needs of our farmers, trample on their private property rights, stand in the way of their success,” he said.

Speaking in front of two green John Deere tractors, the GOP candidate seeking Davis’ job said “the last straw” for growers was the governor’s decision to sign a new measure mandating arbitration between farm workers and their employers when negotiations stall. He also said increases in workers’ compensation payments and stringent state regulations harm farmers.

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“Far from helping California’s struggling agricultural economy, he’s actually stepped on you while you’re down,” Simon said.

The California Farm Bureau Federation, representing 95,000 members, announced its endorsement of Simon on Monday -- a decision that its president said had been strengthened by Davis’ decision to sign the arbitration measure.

Davis, campaigning in Chico and Eureka, brushed aside Simon’s criticism. He said he understood that farmers were upset that he had signed the law. But, he said, farmers have benefited from the state’s “Buy California” campaign and the agricultural tax breaks he approved last year, which he said had reduced the tax burden on farmers to the lowest level in 30 years.

“I don’t like to get in a back-and-forth with Mr. Simon -- he’s thrown a lot of bombs that have exploded in his face so I don’t attach much credibility to his commentary,” Davis told reporters in Chico. “I am proud of our efforts to move everyone forward.”

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Simon’s four-city Central Valley bus trip -- with stops in Bakersfield, Tulare, Fresno and Stockton -- took him through a region where polls show he already has strong support. At each stop, groups of several dozen cheering backers greeted the candidate. Simon and his allies asked the crowds to spread their enthusiasm to other voters by election day, Nov. 5.

“Without the right kind of voter turnout, without participation up and down the valley, Bill Simon cannot win,” said Bill Pauli, president of the state farm bureau federation, during a visit to the Farmington Fresh packing company in Stockton at the end of the day.

Pauli traveled with Simon on Monday to announce the endorsement, which he said had come about because state rules about water diversion and air quality, along with workers’ compensation increases, have helped create “an economic crisis” in the agriculture industry.

“He understands the problems that we face in agriculture, the crisis that we all face in both production and processing, the challenges we have to meet the bottom line to stay in business,” Pauli said.

Pauli added that the Farm Bureau would send out targeted mailers and mobilize voters to vote for Simon, much as the United Farm Workers plans to press for Davis’ election.

As the sun rose over Bakersfield, Simon’s campaign bus -- a refurbished city bus from Columbus, Ohio, that runs on natural gas -- rolled north past acres of grapevines, almond groves and dusty hay fields. Several trucks zooming by on Interstate 99 honked their horns loudly in support as they passed the large “Bill Simon for Governor” banner on the side of the vehicle.

In Tulare, Simon toured a collection of antique farm equipment at Heritage Complex of the International Agri-Center. He and his wife Cindy clambered on top of a red tractor built in 1953, smiling and waving to reporters.

At the Fresno Farm Bureau, Simon broke from the agriculture theme of the day to read portions of an Oct. 17 letter to Davis from state schools Supt. Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who has been at odds with the governor. In the two-page letter, Eastin chastised the governor for vetoing a bill that would have allowed the state to take over the West Fresno Elementary School District. She called the district’s governing board “dysfunctional” and said the district is facing insolvency because of staggering debt.

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“By vetoing this bill, you have sentenced these disillusioned children and their desperate parents to more educational and emotional hardship,” she wrote, adding later, “Now what?”

“The ‘now what’ is to vote Gray Davis out of office,” Simon told about 40 people at the farm bureau, drawing applause and cheers.

Yet when asked if he would have signed the measure, Simon initially equivocated, saying that he would have “looked at it very closely.” On the campaign bus a few minutes later, he told reporters he would have signed it.

Davis spokesman Roger Salazar, in response, cited Davis’ veto message on the measure. In it, Davis wrote that, although he understood the problems in the district, he was worried that a bad precedent would be created if the state took control of the schools before the district was insolvent.

For his part, Davis spent the day among his partisans, campaigning with organized labor officials and workers as he argued that Simon’s election would roll back gains they have made since his inauguration.

“This is about whether you care enough about your future, that you want to get out over the next 15 days and tell people, ‘Well, maybe I won’t give [Davis] four stars, but he’s working hard. He’s a lot better than the opposition,’ ” Davis said, during the final day of a two-day blitz across the state meant to fire up his Democratic base.

Davis was joined by his wife, Sharon, and Art Pulaski, leader of the California Labor Federation, at a Monday afternoon rally with workers, students and other Democratic supporters at Cal State Chico. He traveled later to Eureka for a rally with union members and other Democratic activists, landing at the airport in a thick fog.

In Chico, Davis spoke outside a $12-million building under construction at the university -- a project begun during his administration.

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The building will include new classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls and faculty offices for the university’s Department of Physical Education and Exercise Science and Department of Recreation and Parks management.

After spending the last two days with farm workers and their leaders, Davis turned to urban unions for logistical and moral support in his Northern California swing. Many in the crowd at Chico were carpenters and construction workers in hard hats.


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