There was no way to anticipate it at the time, but Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Jones owes his political career to a black student radical with the tongue-twisting name of Bill Riddlesprigger.
It was 1970, and Jones, conservative son of a Central Valley rancher, had just been elected president of the Cal State Fresno student government. In his long-sleeved sweater with the cuffs folded back an inch, Jones had the anachronistic look of a Four Freshmen Republican in a Jimi Hendrix world, puffing on a pipe while many in his generation smoldered with rage.
There was a lot to rage against. Within days of Jones’ spring election, four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Ohio’s Kent State, ratcheting up passions at daily rallies here against the Vietnam War. The following fall, Chicano students at Cal State Fresno erected a human blockade to stymie registration. An anti-ROTC protest ended in a melee, and someone firebombed the business school’s new computer lab.
Through it all, Jones remained largely silent and uninvolved, according to campus news accounts. Activists viewed him as an extension of the administration, the youthful face of all they were fighting against. “He represented the status quo,” recalled Riddlesprigger, now an English teacher at Fresno City College and a former Fresno school board member.
So after Jones vetoed a Student Senate plan to let black and Chicano students edit an issue a month of the student newspaper, Riddlesprigger, editor of the black edition, began a recall campaign. “I thought he was being unreasonable,” Riddlesprigger said. But when the petition drive stalled 100 signatures short, Riddlesprigger dropped the effort as divisive.
A politician was made.
“He could have had a recall, I could have lost, and that could have been the end of my political career, honestly,” Jones said recently, sitting on a green leather couch in the living room of his sprawling ranch house in a gated community in north Fresno.
That year at Cal State Fresno laid the cornerstone for Jones’ subsequent 30 years of political life and his current campaign against liberal Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, who in 1970 was cutting her own political teeth on the opposite side as an antiwar and progressive political activist in Marin County, 200 miles northwest of here.
Jones’ self-image, now as then, is as a conciliator, a cool head of reason amid great and violent passions. He views those early days in Fresno as an unofficial graduate course in political survival.
“I just learned through that process that there’s an awful lot more middle ground than what oftentimes is perceived,” said Jones, now 56.
“Everybody likes to talk about right-left, conservative-moderate, Democrat-Republican, black-white. That’s not the way it is.... People have problems, and you can work the problems out if you look at it from the objective standpoint. That’s what I enjoy.”
Others, though, see Jones as a Republican team player who views the world through a distinctly conservative prism. What Jones sees as his objective standpoint is anchored by the constancy of small-town life and the persona of the farm kid who moved to town and made a name for himself.
Longtime GOP consultant Dan Schnur describes Jones as an “establishment Republican.” Although Jones has occasionally broken with fellow Republicans, few view him as an innovator or cage-rattler, either now or in those long-ago days at Fresno State.
“I often felt that he was way out of his depth but had the extreme intelligence to know when to speak and when to be quiet,” said Vincent Lavery, a Democratic activist, retired Fresno schoolteacher and a leader of many of Fresno’s anti-Vietnam War protests.
“He had the intelligence to not act from emotion, like I and many others on the left did.... Bill Jones spoke and acted for the powers that we were protesting against.”
His rancher image to the contrary, Jones is a career politician.
After Jones graduated in 1971, he married his college sweetheart, Maurine Abramson, and went to work on the family ranch, in which he still holds a stake. Five years out of college, he made his first run for the Assembly. He lost.
Jones immersed himself in party organizing -- he dressed up as Abraham Lincoln for one annual Republican meeting -- and ran again in 1982. He won that race and represented the Fresno area for six terms, including less than two years as leader of the fractious Republican minority with Pete Wilson in the governor’s office and Democratic Speaker Willie Brown controlling the Assembly.
In that environment, Jones’ steadiness made him stand out among his more partisan fellow Republicans, though many grumbled that Jones was too ready to compromise.
“He was very well respected in the Legislature itself,” said A.G. Block, editor of the California Journal, which tracks state government. “He’s not a very exciting guy, but he was a decent guy and a straight shooter.”
And he was lucky. Like Boxer, Jones has won his share of races that, but for a fortuitous draw of opponents, he could easily have lost.
In 1994, Jones won the race for secretary of state over Democrat Tony Miller, who had been appointed to the job after March Fong Eu received an ambassadorship, by a thin 44,000 votes in what otherwise was a landslide year for Republicans.
Four years later, Jones was reelected by only 90,000 of 8 million votes cast, a narrow win for an incumbent. Jones beat Democratic challenger Michela Alioto, granddaughter in a powerful San Francisco political family, who made the race close even without much advertising in an election that saw Gray Davis lead a near-sweep for Democrats.
Despite 20 years in state office, Jones remains something of a political enigma. As secretary of state, he walked a mostly nonpartisan path, much to the annoyance of some fellow Republicans.
In the Assembly, his highest-profile legislative achievement was the state’s three-strikes law, which was inspired by the 1992 murder of an 18-year-old constituent, Kimber Reynolds, by a convicted felon. The measure was adopted on a wave of law-and-order emotion after a parolee kidnapped and murdered Polly Klaas, 12, of Petaluma, in 1993.
An initiative on the fall ballot would loosen some elements of the law; Jones opposes it.
Jones also was a key backer of a 1988 law that tightened monitoring of pesticides in foods, a move meant to protect consumers that also gave a stamp of regulatory approval to Jones’ farmer constituents. And, while secretary of state, he cowrote 1996’s Proposition 204, a $995-million bond measure to help clean waterways from San Francisco Bay to Lake Tahoe.
Assemblyman Jones was a loyal vote on agriculture issues for fellow Central Valley growers, drew a hard line on crime and approached hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights and the environment from the conservative end of the spectrum.
Yet his outlook was less the traditional left versus right than it was growers versus the world, particularly those who would cut into the flow of water to crops and put broad environmental concerns ahead of the needs of farmers.
Malathion was a telling issue. Jones joined a mixed majority to kill a 1990 measure that would have delayed spraying a Medfly infestation until more was known about the human effects of malathion, eliciting charges that the spraying supporters valued crops more than people.
“We have a great concern about the health of people also,” Jones said at the time. “If for no other reason than they are consumers, it serves no purpose for us to make them mad and do anything to hurt them.”
Jones also proved that he could scrap with the best of them. In backroom maneuvering, he helped engineer the ouster of minority leader Pat Nolan in 1988, but then lost the election to replace him to Ross Johnson. A subsequent Jones- engineered coup to oust Johnson in 1990 failed, but Sen. Tom McClintock succeeded a year later.
When McClintock couldn’t muster enough support to replace Johnson, the more moderate Jones squeaked in with 16 of 31 votes. Jones stepped down less than two years later when the Republicans lost seats after a reapportionment that was expected to make it easier for them to gain.
Block, though, said the election results merely reinforced moves by conservative Republicans dissatisfied with Jones’ centrism.
“He wasn’t partisan enough,” Block said. “It wasn’t a question of losing seats. It was a question of how aggressive are you going to be on the floor in trying to thwart whatever the Democratic agenda is. My sense is that they didn’t feel he was tough enough.”
In an arena that demands loyalty, Jones has occasionally broken ranks in highly public ways, and he cites that proudly as evidence of his political independence. As an Assemblyman, Jones backed Wilson’s controversial call for tax hikes to close a $14.3-million budget gap, earning the enmity of anti-tax conservatives.
His biggest act of independence, though, brought sharp consequences to his career. Four years ago, as the state’s highest-ranking elected Republican, Jones unexpectedly rescinded his endorsement of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and backed Arizona Sen. John McCain two weeks before the crucial California presidential primary.
Some believe the flip-flop was behind the White House overtures that enticed former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to run for California governor in 2002 even though Jones had already entered the race.
Jones finished an irrelevant third behind Riordan and winner Bill Simon, a conservative businessman who was steamrolled by Gray Davis in the general election.
At this stage in his life, the last thing Jones would seem to need is another campaign. He’s set financially: His stake in the Pacific Ethanol business he started in 2003 could be worth more than $25 million after a pending merger.
Jones and his wife talk openly that a return to politics means less time with their two young grandchildren. Jones passed up earlier chances to run for Congress because he didn’t want to spend time away from his then-young family.
Their eldest daughter Wendy, an agricultural and water consultant in Fresno and the mother of two, was born in 1974. She is married to Ryan Turner, who works on the Jones family farming operations and is chief operations officer for Pacific Ethanol. The Jones’ younger daughter, Andrea, a key campaign advisor and former press aide to McCain, was born in 1977.
So why run now?
“I’m a believer in the democratic process,” Jones said. “I’m a student of history, and I realize that it takes people to make the system work.... It’s not that I do this for the love of ‘politics.’ It’s that I enjoy the governance, I enjoy solving problems. And I like the people.”
And he can’t stay away from it. As much as Jones likes the rancher’s way of life, likes riding his horse around the family’s spread outside Firebaugh, 45 northwest of Fresno, he’s drawn more to the politician’s life. He likes to be a crucial link in the chain of decision making. He loves policy, loves the give-and-take of compromise and finding common ground -- as he defines it -- among conflicting opinions to forge a path for the future.
“He’s always had a good-government streak in him,” said Bob Jennings, a longtime Republican political consultant and Jones advisor. “He loves developing policy. I think that’s his first love, maybe even above farming.”
But part of the lure of politics is its addictive nature, Jennings said. Close followers are called “political junkies” for a reason.
“Most days in politics, you face new challenges and new, exciting things. It’s just different,” Jennings said, suggesting that Jones found ranch life too slow after tasting the adrenaline rush of politics. “I look at guys who are ag-chemical salesmen, and I love these guys, but you look at them and think, how can you do that every day? It’s boring.”
Along with ambition, a constant in Jones’ political life has been his likability. Even those who opposed him bitterly in those long-ago Cal State Fresno days say they bore him no animus.
“The last time I met him, he was with his wife, who is an absolutely wonderful person, Maurine, and it was the same Bill Jones,” Lavery said. “I can’t imagine getting angry with Bill Jones because he never showed an awful lot of emotion.”
Tim Ward, a Firebaugh farm-fuel distributor, said Jones wasn’t emotionless in those days. He was learning.
Ward and Jones have known each other since they were 8-year-old pals exploring their rural patch of the Central Valley. Jones’ father set aside some land as an ersatz nature preserve for the boys, and Jones and Ward spent hours as amateur naturalists, meticulously noting sightings of pheasants and rabbits in their logbooks.
“We were a club of two,” said Ward, whose office is decorated with rows of family photos and mementoes, including a faded snapshot of the two boys on a camping trip. “We worked cattle together and rode fence and hunted together.”
As they grew older, they spent less time together, particularly after Jones moved to Fresno and went to a different high school. But the two friends stayed in touch, as they do today. Jones had always been the more reserved of the two, opting out of what Ward described as his own “wild” days.
Once Jones went off to college, his natural reserve hardened, Ward said.
“During that Vietnam deal, when he was in college, I saw him get extremely serious,” Ward said. “He’s always been a little bit more reserved, but I saw him get even more serious.... During that time frame, that’s the most serious I’ve ever seen him get. And he stayed serious too.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Name: Bill Jones
Born: Dec. 20, 1949, Coalinga, Calif.; lives in Fresno
Education: Bachelor’s degree in agribusiness and plant sciences, Cal State Fresno, 1971
Personal: Married to Maurine, an educator; daughters Wendy and Andrea; two grandchildren
Career: After working in his family farm and ranching business in Fresno County, served six two-year terms in state Assembly beginning in 1982 and two four-year terms as secretary of state beginning in 1994. Lost in Republican primary for governor in 2002. Founded alternative-fuel firm Pacific Ethanol in 2003; currently a large stockholder but withdrew from corporate positions to run for Senate.
Strategy: Entered the race gambling that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s success in the 2003 recall election heralded a resurgence of statewide Republican political appeal. Has argued that incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer’s liberal policies have marginalized her in the Republican-controlled Senate, that her opposition to the war in Iraq and large-ticket military programs endangers national security and that her opposition to Bush administration tax policies weakens the economy.
This is the second of two profiles of the major-party candidates for the U.S. Senate. A profile of Barbara Boxer was published Monday.