Jones Touts Support for Timber Industry

Times Staff Writer

As hundreds of chopped-down cedar trees rumbled down conveyer belts into roaring buzz saws, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bill Jones scanned the vast stacks of lumber at a mill near snow-capped Mt. Shasta.

“This is important,” shouted Jones, sporting a blue hardhat. “This here today is one of the few facilities left to try and take advantage of the forests of California in a proper way.”

Jones warned that Southern Californians’ homes would all be built with wood imported from China if what he views as excessive forest preservation rules were not scaled back.


“This is California, and this is an industry that’s important to us,” he said.

The industry is also vital to Jones, not just for campaign donations, but for the conservative vote it represents in parts of the state where timber is the economy’s backbone.

Still, the lumber-mill visit was striking in its timing -- just nine days after Jones won his party’s nomination to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Barbara Boxer. In a state dominated by Democrats, the No. 1 imperative for a conservative Republican such as Jones in a general election race is to reach beyond his core supporters.

Those facing that task in most campaigns use the general election to cast themselves as strong on environmental protection -- an issue that resonates with moderate voters -- to offset attacks on their stands on abortion, guns and other issues. Even Jones took that tack just before the primary, denouncing offshore oil drilling at stops in Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach.

But in a two-day swing through the Central Valley that concluded Thursday here at the Sierra Pacific Industries mill, Jones instead focused on shoring up support among conservatives, signaling concern about their loyalty.

In part, that entailed stressing his opposition to gun control, which Boxer has used to portray him as out of step with most Californians.

“You let Barbara Boxer worry about the guns; I’m going to worry about the criminals,” he told listeners of a conservative talk-radio show Thursday in Sacramento.

The environment-versus-jobs clash served the same purpose. While depicting himself as a champion of jobs, he has described Boxer -- a sponsor of legislation to expand wilderness preserves -- as beholden to “extreme environmental groups.”

On Wednesday, he hammered her for criticizing President Bush’s abandonment of the Kyoto pact on global warming. Earlier, in Fresno, he questioned her lack of support for new oil refineries in California.

And Thursday, Jones campaigned at the same mill where former Gov. Pete Wilson -- at a 1996 rally for GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole -- suggested a new Republican Party motto: “It’s Jobs First, Not Earth First.”

In a haze of sawdust with a sharp scent of freshly chopped wood, Jones called Boxer a demagogue on the environment. He praised Bush for backing forest thinning to protect against fires and save logging jobs.

For Jones, the risk in making that kind of pitch is that Boxer could use it to undermine his appeals to moderates -- especially those in heavily populated coastal counties -- who put a high value on environmental issues.

“It’s her turf,” said John Syer, a professor of government at Cal State Sacramento. “It’s her issue. She’ll hit him over the head with it.”

Indeed, Boxer strategist Roy Behr said it was “incredibly revealing” that Jones had campaigned at the Sierra Pacific mill.

“Normally, after the primary, candidates turn to the middle,” Behr said. “Instead, Jones is turning to the right.”

That, it appears, is out of necessity. During the primary, Republican rivals tried to undermine support for Jones among conservatives by reminding voters that he had supported billions of dollars in tax hikes when Wilson was governor -- and that he had yanked his endorsement of Bush in the 2000 presidential primary and switched to John McCain.

A Times exit poll of voters in the Republican primary found that Jones won votes from just 43% of those who called themselves conservatives. Given that result, Republican pollster Bob Moore said it made sense for Jones to focus first on his base.

“Anytime you don’t get 85% of the Republican primary vote, there’s cleanup to be done,” said Moore, who worked for a Jones opponent, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, in the primary.

On his Central Valley tour, Jones played up his rapprochement with Bush, mentioning at every stop his ride on Air Force One during the president’s visit last week to California. He has also reiterated his support for Bush’s tax cuts.

The Times exit poll also showed the tough task ahead for Jones as he courts moderates and independents. It found that 67% of moderates approved of Boxer’s job performance and 58% of independents gave her favorable ratings. The survey also underscored her strong support among women: Two out of three gave her favorable job ratings.

At the mill, Jones said his focus on lumber industry jobs would appeal to voters throughout the state.

“Moderates, independents and women live in houses made of wood also,” he said. “They’re concerned about jobs and the economy also.”