by Joe Shea
American Reoporter Correspondent
October 8, 2002
CALIF. GOVERNOR HOPEFULS CLASH - AFTER THE DEBATE
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 8 -- After a tame debate that drew few viewers, California Gov. Gray Davis and millionaire GOP challenger Bill Simon met a goodly portion of the press excluded from Monday's event - and the excitement began.
Davis beat back dozens of queries about his role in the state's surplus-draining energy crisis last year, when energy companies - many based in Texas - overcharged the state and "bilked us out of $20 billion," as Davis put it.
In response to a query from the American Reporter that asked how he is trying to get that money back, Davis first tried to redirect the question to the $4 billion overcharge the state is seeking to collect from El Paso Natural Gas, a company in which, he said, Simon's family - Simon is the son of former U.S. Treasury Secy. William Simon - had invested, but when corrected by AR then said the state is hoping to recover $9 billion of it through lawsuits and action by the Federal government.
Davis didn't ever say whether he would try to recover the other $11 billion, or if that was deemed hopeless. Much of the money reportedly went to failing or failed energy companies including Dynegy, Enron and Williams. Nor did he use the occasion to note that he did little to stop the fraud until it was too late.
For Simon, the American Reporter had a related question. He had called on Gov. Davis to apologize for what Simon perceived as failures, and so was asked if he did not owe California taxpayers an apology for his family's participation as shareholders in the profits El Paso Natural Gas made from its California customers.
"We only had a few shares, a few shares," Simon said, smiling. Throughout the debate, Davis and Simon had gone back and forth about the issue with neither man making any points.
Davis had left the podium after answering a question about his veto of Assembly Bill 60, which would have allowed working undocumented aliens who have applied for green cards the right to get a driver's license, when the American Reporter spoke out and got the governor to stop to answer a final question about the issue.
Davis had said he wanted undocumented workers to go through a background check of warrants for serious crimes, as well as to prove their "working" status by production of a pay stub. Asked whether he could ensure that American drivers would not also be asked about such warrants, Davis halted, stared a phalanx of cameras, and said, "Uh."
A Los Angeles Times event coordinator tried to end the questioning there, but the American Reporter demanded that he be allowed to answer as dozens of other questions on the topic began in the background.
"With all due respect, I'm going to answer this question," Davis said. "Then I'm leaving." That comment drew laughter from the press corps.
Responding, Davis said that currently California asks teachers and school bus drivers, among others in what he called "sensitive" jobs, to undergo such checks.
"But not drivers..." interjected the American Reporter Correspondent. Davis did not acknowledge the comment, and quickly finished.
Simon was grilled by the American Reporter about his differences with the Governor over Davis' blanket refusal to parole convicted killers, and responding, drew attention to one case in which he had written to ask the governor to give special consideration to the parole board's positive review of a woman convicted of killing an abusive husband. Davis had vetoed the parole board recommendation, but was then overruled by the board for the first ime in the state's history.
Simon said the parole board had recommended very few convicts for parole, and that Davis had paroled "extraordinarily few" of those. In contrast, he said, he would not follow any blanket policy and make such determinations "on a case-by-case basis."
"So, as the Republican governor of California, you would parole more convicted killers," the American Reporter said.
"No, no, that's not right," Simon protested.
The fight over driver's licenses is even stranger than the one over paroles. Undocumented aliens can't vote, but their anger over Davis' veto of the bill passed by both houses of the legislature last week has outraged both illegals and the wider Latino community, who can be an important voting bloc. Yet Simon was recently quoted as saying on a conservative Los Angeles talk radio show that he would also veto it, and the issue has not scored many points for him even if it has cost Davis some support.
Recent polls show the incumbent governor, who served as a popular California Lieutenant Governor for two terms and as chief of staff for popular former Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, safely ahead by a margin of about 15 points.
The debate was held at the Chicago-based Los Angeles Times, which stacked the deck with its own reporters and a political analyst from one of its Tribune Co.-owned sister television stations in Sacramento. The Times also barred the Green Party candidate for governor because, the paper said, polls didn't show him winning at least 15 percent of the vote. It will be the only debate of the campaign, so voters won't get a second chance to hear their questions answered.