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Refreshing Gubernatorial Debate Is a Break From Usual Hot Air

In a dreary election season of endless low-lights, this was a rare highlight.

Not a ponderous photo-op with political props--a prop like some local sheriff on the make. Not an attack-ad head-chop.

This was a friendly discussion of issues in front of real people. Not a Pavlovian cheering section.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. and Green Party candidate Peter M. Camejo squared off in a 90-minute debate Tuesday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The event was co-sponsored by New California Media, a group of ethnic media organizations, and the Greenlining Institute, a coalition of minority groups that promotes urban economic development.

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It was a relatively small audience--roughly 100 people--with maybe only five TV news crews.

But unlike most campaign events these days, it’s safe to say nobody walked away feeling they needed a shower.

It wasn’t everything you’d want, of course. Gov. Gray Davis wasn’t there.

The Democratic governor wasn’t about to draw more TV cameras--perhaps even live coverage--to help publicize either Simon or Camejo.

The Green candidate has been polling less than 5% in public opinion surveys, but most every vote he gets is one that ordinarily would go to Davis. That is, if Davis weren’t considered a traitor and a scoundrel by so many liberals.

Davis learned a lesson about debating third-party candidates from the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial race. Davis’ personal instructor was Paul Maslin, his pollster, who in 1998 also was an advisor to Minnesota Atty. Gen. Hubert Humphrey III. Humphrey was the front-runner for governor until he allowed Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura into the campaign debates.

“Definitely a mistake,” Maslin recalls.

Camejo is no Ventura. He’s not well known. He’s a leftist former Berkeley radical, born in New York to rich parents from Venezuela, who runs a “socially responsible” Bay Area investment firm.

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Unlike Ventura, Camejo is not a showman. But his passion on issues may appeal to people impatient with mealy-mouthed major party politicians.

“The Bill of Rights is being shredded in Washington,” Camejo said when asked about the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist actions. “There’s madness going on.... All this nervousness and overreaction and denying democratic rights.”

On capital punishment: “It’s implemented in a racist manner.... We’re the only advanced industrial nation left in the world with the death penalty.... We need a moral understanding that it is not the role of the state to kill.”

Abortion: “The basic premise of our nation is separation of church and state. Everyone has the right to their belief. And they can practice it any way they want. But women have a right to their own religious views in deciding what to do with their bodies. And the government must stay out.”

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By contrast, Simon was Simon: low-key and cautious.

That’s understandable with a land-mine issue like abortion, when most voters disagree with him. “I’m pro-life, except in desperate situations like rape, incest and when the life of the mother is threatened,” Simon said carefully. “But I understand the law [legalizing abortion]. I will uphold the law.”

But the restrained rhetoric is a mystery on an issue like capital punishment, which most voters support and is GOP dogma. “I’m comfortable with the law as it presently stands,” Simon said. “The governor does have the power of clemency.”

I kept waiting for this former federal prosecutor to say something impassioned about, say, justice for the victims of murdering pedophiles.

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But both Simon and Camejo were debate winners. They got positive attention. These were little wins, but Simon will welcome any kind of a triumph after his disastrous summer.

Davis was a loser, but not because he boycotted the debate. It was because of a gratuitous statement his campaign released immediately afterward. By agreeing to debate Green candidate Camejo, the Davis camp asserted, “Simon has finally relegated California’s Republican Party to minor party status.”

That smacked of arrogance and elitism. The GOP may be headed toward oblivion, but it’s not because the party’s gubernatorial nominee discussed issues with a Green candidate before two minority organizations.

Fortunately, Davis bashing was held to a minimum during the debate. Camejo: “He put up a for sale sign on Sacramento.” Simon: “I’ll tear down the tollbooth to the governor’s office.”

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Primarily, this was an old-fashioned exchange of ideas on maybe 20 issues.

The event was refreshing. Unlike most, it lacked a familiar repelling stench that turns away voters.


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