Whore vs. Bore

Californians have refused public campaign financing, and we've gotten what we deserve: a governor's race between a fund-raising slut and a clueless rich guy

In France last week, according to the Wall Street Journal, left-of-center voters stocked up on clothespins and gloves to place on their noses and hands as a way of signaling displeasure while they voted for incumbent President Jacques Chirac. The leftists, you see, were supporting the conservative Chirac only because the alternative -- the race-baiting ultra-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen -- was, for them, unthinkable.

That the odd and frightening Le Pen made the final presidential ballot was an electoral fluke; in the end, Chirac won the presidential runoff overwhelmingly, and French authorities refused to allow sartorial indications of electoral displeasure. Such playacting, those authorities held, was not in accord with the solemn exercise of the franchise. Because we must never do anything the French find tacky, Californians are left in a quandary: Without nosepins and gloves, what are we to do about Gray Davis and Bill Simon?

So far, the major left-coast media have served up our major gubernatorial candidates as depressing cartoons.

Simon is portrayed as another one of those politically-wet-behind-the-ears, multizillionaire, pro-business stiffs the Republicans keep throwing into statewide races; subtextually, it's hinted that he's a right-wing kook of ominous proportions. (The San Francisco Chronicleseems to feel a special duty to warn of Simon's latent Le Pen- like tendencies. Since the March primary, Chronicle scribes have found it necessary to tell us -- twice, in breathless, oh-my-God, Page 1 Sunday "scoops" -- that Simon, a conservative Republican, has actual conservatives working on his political staff. Soon, I expect, the Chroniclewill publish a five-part series of exposés on businessmen in the Simon campaign.)

Gray Davis, on the other hand, has been sketched as a wily if unprincipled political operator, a man who, despite a well-earned reputation for uninspired oratory and craven pandering, has a genius for campaign fund-raising and strategy that derailed his biggest Republican threat, former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan, with millions of dollars of attack ads. (As a scandal over a state contract for Oracle software blooms, the press is enlarging on its negative subtext for Davis, but it's still vaguer than Simon's; it combines, generally, the ickiness of the governor's nonstop campaign fund-raising with the incompetence of his handling of the energy crisis.)

Now that the cartoons are drawn, it seems, all that's left is a smelly horse race that the media will call for us, all the way till November:

Davis takes a 14-length lead as Simon stumbles over a pile of unreleased income tax forms ...

But now, with the incumbent clearly laboring under the Oracle strapped to his back, Simon is coming up on the outside ...

Across the front pages of the major dailies, a crude, best-of-two-evils race will play out. Many a story will document the laments of voters dismayed at their gubernatorial choices. Many an op-ed piece will bemoan the likelihood of low voter turnout caused by disgust with the gubernatorial race.

There will be insufficient pondering of a clear and present question: Why doesthe largest state in the most powerful nation on Earth keep winding up with offensive nonentities as candidates for leadership positions?


In 1907, concerned about corporate influence over public life, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Tillman Act into law, making it illegal for corporations to contribute to federal candidates for office.

Here in the trend-setting state of California, 95 years later, even though there is no more obvious source of potential political corruption than the corporate treasury, we haven't managed to get around to banning corporate donations yet.

In federal races, the size of contributions has been limited since 1974, when the campaign abuses of Watergate made it clear that unregulated election donations could subvert democracy in dangerous ways. Individual contributions were capped at $1,000 per election, or $2,000 per year. (Under campaign finance reforms passed this year, that limit will rise slightly.)

Until recently, state candidates in California here could accept any wad of cash anyone (or any business) was willing to fork over. Gray Davis and state Senate strongman John Burton are among the most efficient hunters and gatherers, reeling in $25,000, $50,000, $75,000, and, in Davis' case, even $100,000 donations with abandon. The last time I looked, the governor had $28 million in the bank -- and that's after spending some $10 million to poleax Riordan in the primaries.

This year, a package of campaign finance "reforms" known as Proposition 34 begins to fall into place. Prop. 34 will change some facets of California's campaign finance regime ever, ever so slightly for the better. Contribution limits on state legislative candidates will roll out this year; limits on contributions to gubernatorial candidates will, of course, not kick in until after the November election.

But even after the California "reforms" are all in place, nothing much will have changed. Political players -- the people and firms seeking contracts, licenses, permissions, and other favors from the government -- will be able to hand gubernatorial candidates campaign money in chunks as large as $20,000. Corporations will still be able to give directly to candidates.

And Californians will be left with the same choice we have had for a long time now:

We can elect a candidate who is so wealthy he can fund his own campaign (and pray the candidate knows something -- anything -- about running a government and possesses some -- any-- concern about the unrich).

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