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Jones Challenges Boxer in a Low Key

Times Staff Writer

A cold north wind swept off the mountains cradling Camarillo, whipped across agricultural fields and pounded the corrugated steel walls of the tractor shed like a hundred ball-peen hammers. Inside, a few farmers strained to hear as Bill Jones, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, tried to out-shout the gusts.

“Sorry for the background noise,” Jones said to muffled chuckles from the crowd. “But it does give me a chance to start at a higher volume.”

A higher volume, indeed. Jones has long been considered one of the Capitol’s less flamboyant politicians, a man whose occasional maverick streak was well hidden behind his bland name and steady-as-you-go demeanor.

He started last year out of office. After two decades in Sacramento as an assemblyman and secretary of state, Jones had been dispatched by term limits back to a quieter life in Fresno, working the family farm.

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But his late entrance into the Senate race has been assisted by a big megaphone -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The new governor is in many ways returning a favor to Jones, among the first to back candidate Schwarzenegger during the recall campaign. While their joint appearances have been limited, Schwarzenegger’s face is plastered on Jones’ campaign material, and his endorsement is constantly touted by Jones.

Somewhat remarkably, given Schwarzenegger’s stated desire to torch politics as usual, Jones is making the argument that his experience is what counts. Unlike the other major Republican candidates, who have never held statewide office, Jones portrays himself as the sort of veteran partner Schwarzenegger needs in Washington.

“This is about California,” said Jones, 54. “This is about the optimism the governor has delivered, the optimism I want to help continue rebuilding.”

The front-runner in early polls, Jones is campaigning as if Tuesday’s GOP primary were yesterday’s news. Boxer -- perennially deemed vulnerable by Republicans -- is clearly in his cross hairs.

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“It’s an uphill fight, but I think if he can get the funding, he can give her a very good run,” said former Gov. George Deukmejian, who has joined erstwhile Gov. Pete Wilson and Schwarzenegger in backing Jones.

Born and raised in California’s vast agricultural midsection, Jones was defined early by the values of the rural West. The cowboy ethic of stoicism and quiet perseverance runs deep. “My dad always taught me you learn more from listening than talking,” Jones said.

Next to Schwarzenegger, particularly, Jones seems like a candidate in need of a jolt of charisma. It’s hard to coax a grin from him; when it appears, his teeth barely visible, the smile seems as subdued as his plain-as-pie name.

What he lacks in glitter, friends say, he makes up with gumption. They describe Jones as even-keeled and honest, a man who works hard and respects the opinions of others. Jones, a Methodist, says he attends church weekly when he’s not on the campaign trail. His oldest daughter, 29-year-old Wendy Turner, says she has never heard her father raise his voice.

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“You have to understand him as a rancher if you want to understand who he is,” said Chuck Bader, a Sacramento lobbyist and former assemblyman who arrived in the Legislature with Jones in 1982. “And you have to understand his loyalty to Fresno and the Central Valley and agriculture.”

His grandfather came to California in 1919, making the trip from Texas with the forebear of the famed Harris Ranch cattle operation. The candidate’s father and mother, both World War II veterans, instilled in their three children a deep sense of patriotism, hard work and life’s possibilities. There was never any criticism of losing, Jones says, just of not trying.

As a boy, Jones was lanky, wore black-rimmed glasses and got average grades at the tiny school he attended near the family farm, which eventually grew to spread across more than 5,000 acres on the west side of the Central Valley near the town of Firebaugh.

His favorite boyhood pastimes were hunting and fishing. He played basketball at Fresno High School, but was relegated to the bench, a hayseed hustler who never quite had the skills of the city kids. While peers slept in, Jones was up before dawn to feed the cows. He remains an early riser.

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But politics intruded early on. His father served more than four decades on the local water board and helped Gov. Ronald Reagan shape water policy. Jones took his first stride into politics at Cal State Fresno, where he became student body president and earned an agribusiness degree in 1971.

The Vietnam War was raging, and Jones unashamedly supported America’s involvement. When antiwar protesters stormed the campus, Jones led a contingent of ag students who took up shovels and pitchforks to stand sentry, turning away the demonstrators without incident.

A back problem kept Jones out of the Marines, so he volunteered for the 1972 reelection campaign of President Nixon. Two years later, Jones won a seat on the Fresno County Republican Central Committee. In 1976, he ran for the Assembly and lost.

For a half-dozen years, Jones farmed and, with his schoolteacher wife, Maurine, raised their two daughters. Then, in 1982, he dived in again and won an Assembly seat. In Sacramento, a town of sharp elbows and shadowy motives, Jones earned a reputation as gentlemanly and straight-shooting, a conservative at heart but more pragmatist than rigid ideologue.

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Above all, he was always a sure vote for the agricultural community back home. While farmers applauded his unwavering support, environmentalists rued votes such as his opposition to creating an air quality board for the pollution-choked San Joaquin Valley.

His biggest legislative triumph came on a gritty urban issue. In 1994, Jones pushed through the landmark three-strikes criminal sentencing bill, tapping into public ire over repeat offenders.

His independent streak surfaced regularly.

In 1991, he angered conservatives -- and provided grist for his current foes in the GOP primary -- by joining with Democrats and a handful of Republicans to support Wilson’s menu of tax increases to close a budget deficit. Wilson later helped Jones vault to Assembly GOP leader, a post he held for a year.

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Elected secretary of state in 1994, Jones is credited with modernizing services and fighting vote fraud. But he irked Republicans by supporting campaign finance reform and the crossover primary.

Jones got GOP die-hards grumbling again in 2000. Right before California’s presidential primary, Jones pulled his endorsement from the eventual winner, George W. Bush, and threw it to challenger John McCain. He blamed the negative tone of Bush’s campaign.

The decision shadowed Jones’ run for governor in 2002. Deemed radioactive by many Republicans, Jones finished a distant third in the GOP primary behind a pair of millionaires: Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and the eventual nominee, Bill Simon.

With that, Jones was out of office for the first time in 20 years. Returning to full-time farm life, Jones set up a cattle feedlot on Firebaugh’s southern edge, trading the quarrelsome capital for a quarter horse and mornings spent culling steers. He pushed the family into new endeavors, including plans to produce ethanol from corn.

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He also benefited from past political connections. Jones went to work for a short time last year as a $10,000-a-month consultant to Sequoia Voting Systems, a touch-screen voting machine company. His primary responsibility: giving the company entree to officials in other states. Jones and the company parted ways shortly before he announced his run for U.S. Senate, and after news reports critical of his consulting work so soon after leaving office.

His resurrection as a statewide candidate is due in no small part to Schwarzenegger. Jones says the election of the new governor and the climate of change sweeping California politics convinced him the time might be right to upend Boxer. He jumped into the U.S. Senate race on the last day to file.

Democrats talk as if they’re delighted by the prospect. In Jones they see the same sort of opponent Boxer vanquished in two prior Senate races -- a conservative, middle-aged man; a foe of abortion rights and gun control. Democrat strategist Garry South labels Jones “just another cookie-cutter conservative.” His Republican rivals, too, hit him as either too conservative or too pragmatic, their targets ranging from his past approval of the tax hike to his business dealings.

Last weekend at the state Republican convention, challenger Toni Casey insisted that Jones would be unable to hold the line on federal spending because his family had reaped more than $3.4 million in U.S. agriculture subsidies since 1995. The family also is collecting part of a $139-million settlement of a lawsuit brought against the U.S. by 19 farm families over federal failure to provide agricultural drainage, the lack of which fouled their fields with salt.

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Jones shrugs it off, saying he expects to be hit from every angle during the race. He defends agricultural subsidies as a necessary part of the business, the funds plowed into keeping the family farm competitive. As for his work with Sequoia, Jones says he never did anything in office to give the firm an advantage. He signed on with them as a private citizen, Jones said, because “they have a good product.”

Even with the Schwarzenegger endorsement, Jones is campaigning as he always has. During a recent one-day romp up the Central Coast, this son of the Central Valley clung close to his agricultural roots, speaking to small audiences made up almost entirely of farmers. He stuck to the same apple pie issues he’s run on for years -- public safety and patriotism, job creation and economic growth.

Outfitted in a blue blazer and tasseled loafers, he didn’t look a farmer. But he talked like one.

“For all of us in agriculture, we know there are seasons for everything,” Jones told the crowd in Camarillo. This, he added, “is the season to beat Barbara Boxer.”

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Up the road in Buellton, Jones stopped at Pea Soup Andersen’s to shake hands with the sparse midmorning breakfast crowd.

“I think it’s great you’re running,” said Bob Decker, a retired Long Beach police officer now living in Nipomo with his wife, Jolene. He pumped Jones’ beefy hand and added, “Get Barbara Boxer out of there!”

In another booth across the aisle, Tom Rosin and Gail Wreed offered a cooler reception. After Jones stepped away, Wreed said she remained an inveterate Boxer fan. “Whether it’s civil liberties or the environment, her place there is important.”

At a gathering later that day in Paso Robles, Jones told the 40 Republican loyalists that he wanted to see California get a fairer return on its federal tax dollars. He talked of Schwarzenegger and renewed optimism in a state buffeted by an energy crisis and recall and deficit.

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“I want to make sure I leave California for my grandchildren,” Jones concluded, “as good or better than my father left it for me.”


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