In a move fraught with political cross-currents, Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. won the public support Wednesday of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who praised Simon’s leadership and accused his own successor, Gray Davis, of turning the state’s finances into a disaster.
Simon “will attack with energy the problems that need solving because California’s future is in doubt,” Wilson told reporters, before attending a small fund-raiser with the GOP candidate at an upscale hotel.
“I happen to be a little proud of the fact that we left this state in pretty good shape four years ago,” he said. “It is not in as good shape today.”
Simon’s first public appearance with the former governor, just 13 days before the election, was designed to spark enthusiasm among Republicans who feel continued loyalty to Wilson, a two-term governor and U.S. senator. But the presence of Wilson -- a polarizing figure who backed a controversial 1994 initiative that would have eliminated health and education benefits for illegal immigrants -- could alienate the Latino voters Simon is trying win over, political experts said. Proposition 187 was approved by voters, but largely overturned by the courts.
“In some ways, it will be seen as a slap in the face,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
For many, Wilson remains a potent symbol of the party’s anti-immigrant image in the state. His support for Proposition 187 galvanized thousands of Latinos to register to vote in the years that followed. Three-quarters signed up as Democrats.
Outside the Vizcaya Hotel where the two men attended a fund-raiser, half a dozen protesters from the United Farm Workers shouted “Pete Wilson, go home!” and carried signs that said “Simon-Wilson Prop. 187 Team.”
Simon called Wilson “a very good friend” and “a great public servant,” and dismissed suggestions that Wilson’s assistance in the campaign would upset Latino voters. The GOP candidate -- who has said he was opposed to Proposition 187 -- argued that he has aggressively campaigned for Latino votes by emphasizing the need for more jobs and better schools.
“When I talk to members of the Latino community, my message resonates with them,” said Simon, who visited an elementary school in south Sacramento Wednesday morning, where he promised to improve public schools and create more charter schools.
But Davis campaign spokesman Roger Salazar said Simon’s embrace of the former governor will backfire. He noted that George W. Bush avoided appearing with Wilson during multiple visits to California in the 2000 presidential race.
“Pete Wilson has been a very divisive figure, especially among Latinos in California, and I’m not sure that they’ll appreciate this,” Salazar said. “You can go into any Latino crowd and say, ‘Pete Wilson,’ and all you hear are boos.”
University of California Regent Ward Connerly, who attended the Simon fund-raiser Wednesday, said Wilson has been unfairly tarnished by the fallout over Proposition 187. But he agreed that the initiative and the governor’s ardent support for it created a public relations problem for the state GOP.
“I think it’s made it appear that the Republican Party is anti-Hispanic,” said Connerly, who became a lightning rod for racial politics after mounting efforts to kill affirmative action programs in California.
Simon’s appearance with Wilson -- despite the risks to his Latino appeal -- indicates that his campaign’s main focus is turning out Republicans, political consultants said.
“Clearly, that segment of the vote is taking precedence to anything the campaign has done in the Hispanic community,” said GOP consultant Mike Madrid.
‘Sleight of Hand’
Speaking in the lush hotel patio, Wilson accused Davis of ruining the state’s fiscal health with the recently passed budget.
“What you’ve seen is in order to get by an election without offending voters, the governor and a Democratic majority in the Legislature have engaged in this sleight of hand,” said Wilson, who like Davis confronted a painful multibillion-dollar deficit in his first term. “This is not a budget, it’s a sham.”
Salazar said Wilson was ill-informed about the state’s finances.
“I think at this stage of the campaign, Pete Wilson is about as relevant as Bill Simon, and that’s not saying much,” he said.
On Wednesday, Simon released a television commercial charging Davis with bungling the state’s energy crisis and budget. In the ad, which the campaign said is running statewide, Simon addresses the camera and tells voters that Davis has cost taxpayers $11 billion for new schools, police officers and firefighters.
“If you’ve had enough, I’m asking for your vote,” the Republican nominee says in the spot.
Salazar called the ad misleading. He noted that money spent on buying electricity during the energy crisis was not taken from the state’s general fund, and will be repaid with bonds. In addition, he said, schools are built with bond money, and so school construction has not been curtailed by budget cuts.
“He has a fundamental misunderstanding of how the state budget works,” Salazar said.
The commercial comes less than two weeks after Simon said he would try to elevate the rhetoric of the campaign and move away from negative attacks. Since then, he has run only anti-Davis ads.
The reappearance of Wilson, who has maintained a low political profile since leaving office in 1999, sparked a series of charged remarks from several parties.
Outside the hotel where Simon held the fund-raiser, California Democratic Party advisor Bob Mulholland stood with the protesters and lashed at Simon for associating himself with the former governor.
“Wilson’s anti-Latino tattoo today goes on Simon’s arm,” Mulholland said. “Big mistake by Simon, to associate himself with the leading immigrant-bashing Republican in the state.”
Minutes later, Wilson was asked how he felt about being dogged by protesters eight years after the controversial anti-illegal immigration initiative.
“I miss it; I felt right at home,” he said. “Except I felt inclined to stop and tell ‘em that this wasn’t the unemployment line.”
Later, Connerly jumped into the fray, taking on Davis’ prolific fund-raising.
“Gray Davis has given sleaze a bad name,” the regent said.
He also had a candid appraisal of Simon’s campaign, which has been beset with problems since the spring.
“The campaign has not been a classic good campaign,” Connerly said. But Simon is “a very decent man, and he loves this state and he wants to make a difference.”