LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--In California's race for governor, women are using their political clout to put issues they care about at the forefront of debate between the two candidates who need their support most.
Both incumbent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and Republican businessman Bill Simon Jr. face unique challenges in gaining women's votes. Recent surveys show that the most important issues for California women are reproductive choice, education, gun control and the economy, raising the bar for two candidates who must justify their unpopular positions on some of these issues.
Davis is addressing a budget shortfall of $23.6 billion by making drastic cuts into social programs that help women living in poverty. Simon, a political newcomer, is strongly anti-choice.
Women account for more than half of California's voters, with 8 million women registered to vote and another 3 million eligible. Mindful of a recent Field Poll that found that 28 percent of Californians remain undecided about whom to vote for, Davis and Simon are making targeted pitches on issues women care about. On Friday, 1,200 women gathered in Los Angeles for a breakfast, eager to hear how the two men would address these issues.
Republicans Losing Women's Votes in Recent Years
Perhaps no one needs women voters more than Simon. Republican candidates in this largely Democratic state have experienced huge losses in recent years.
Four years ago, Davis won a landslide victory over his Republican opponent Dan Lungren thanks in large part to women voters. Like Simon, Lungren was anti-choice and opposed stricter gun laws. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, women favored Davis over Lungren 62 percent to 35 percent, while men favored Davis over Lungren 53 percent to 42 percent.
"Women are very important in this race," said John Kohut, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington who is monitoring the campaign. "The Democrats will keep reminding women of Simon's conservative views on social issues and they will play to women's fears about keeping abortion legal."
'How Do I Earn Your Trust?'
Politicians at the national level tend to pay close attention to gubernatorial races in California because the state's governor inevitably campaigns for presidential candidates who covet California's large number of Electoral College votes. President George W. Bush spent considerable time here during the primary supporting the former mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan in his bid for governor. When Riordan lost to Simon, the White House had to abruptly shift gears. Since the primary, Bush has stumped for Simon twice, helping him raise about $5 million.
On Friday, Davis and Simon were each scheduled to answer questions at the event, The Women's TownHall. But a carpenter's union protesting subcontractor wages was picketing in front of the Westin Bonaventure hotel where the event was held. Davis, who has a strict policy of not crossing picket lines, canceled.
That left Republican contender Simon with a packed audience all to himself. Trailing 14 percentage points behind Davis in last month's Field Poll, and with a campaign fund of only $6 million to Davis' $28 million, Simon addressed his lack of appeal among women.
"The challenge for me is how do I make you feel comfortable? How do I earn your trust?" Simon asked in his opening remarks.
Answers to these questions continue to elude Simon. A lawyer and a businessman, he lacks formal political experience. He served as assistant attorney general in New York under then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani (who has endorsed him in his bid for California governor) and his father was a Treasury secretary under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
In addition, Simon's conservative views are out of step with many women here. He opposes further restrictions on guns and is endorsed by the National Rifle Association, while most women support gun control. Two out of three women in California believe in reproductive choice while Simon would limit abortion to pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest or to save the woman's life.
Many Women Critical of Simon's Abortion Stance
Throughout the campaign Simon has had a policy of not answering questions about abortion, but he said he was "glad" to talk about it at Friday's event with women representing 125 groups ranging from the Girl Scouts of the United States of America and Planned Parenthood Federaton of America to Women in Technology International.
Simon promised that when appointing judges he would not make abortion a "litmus test" and would instead appoint the "most qualified judges, whether they are pro-choice or pro-life." He also said that he would uphold current laws protecting abortion rights.
Simon had gone further than ever before in detailing his views on abortion and how he would govern under current abortion law. But he drew his loudest applause when he said, "I understand that not everyone agrees with me on this subject."
Still, for many women in the audience, his words were not enough to bridge the disconnect.
"He danced around the issue very well," said Shelley Singer, co-chair of the Women's Caucus on HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County. "But how would he uphold the law? How would he protect clinics from bombers? How would he address sex education? How would he support condom use, since women are the fastest-growing infection group in the AIDS epidemic?"
In contrast, Davis has a strong pro-choice record and supports legislation that would expand access to reproductive health services. He supports AIDS education and has passed the strictest assault-weapons laws in the country. However, despite Davis' increases in education funding, California ranks 46th in spending for students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and 34th in percentage of high school completion, according a report released last week by The Women's Foundation in San Francisco.
Poor Economy Hurts Women More
Throughout Simon's remarks, many women in the audience raised their eyebrows, crossed their arms defiantly, shook their heads and even hissed or booed.
But on the issues of education and the economy, Simon did get some cheers. He pledged to increase after-school programs. Aware there are 1.2 million women business owners in California who employ 3.8 million workers, according to organizers of Friday's event, Simon proposed cutting the capital gains tax to encourage small businesses. He said that one way to ensure equal pay for equal work is to support the rise in women-owned businesses. His pledge to focus on the economy resonated with many women.
"As women we can focus on a social agenda, but if we don't push the financial issues, we won't get funding for social programs," said Pamela Hermann, executive director of the non-partisan Leadership California, which helps women gain leadership roles in the public and private sector. "If you're $24 billion tipped the wrong way, we clearly have a problem," she said, referring to the budget shortfall.
Simon has criticized Davis for his recent budget proposal to cover the $23.6 billion deficit, noting that when Davis took office four years ago the state had a $7 billion surplus. Davis' new proposal calls for slashing some programs for the poor, such as subsidized health care and county funds that go to human services. Simon has not offered his own plan detailing how he would cover the budget deficit.
"The question Governor Davis asks women to ask themselves is, 'Who is the best person to deal with the economic slowdown?'" said Davis spokesman Roger Salazar. "Someone who will prioritize programs important to women, or someone who would do giveaways to the wealthy? It's a question of two different philosophies." Davis plans to meet with women's groups throughout the campaign, Salazar said, and will likely begin women-targeted advertisements as the race heats up
Possible Fund-Raising Conflicts Cast Shadow
One out of three single California women and their children--37 percent--live in poverty, compared to the national average of 25 percent, according to The Women's Foundation report.
"To cut funding to the programs that can improve women's economic security is to balance the budget at women's expense," said Patti Chang, The Women's Foundation chief executive officer and president. Davis is beset by other problems. He has a reputation as an overzealous fund-raiser and his administration is embroiled in a scandal involving a campaign worker who accepted a $25,000 contribution from the Oracle Corporation shortly before the software giant won a $95 billion, no-bid state contract that auditors say was overpriced. Davis has denied any knowledge of the contribution.
"Davis is obviously better because he is pro-choice and pro-union, but he needs to insist that corporations pay their fair share," said Bethany Leal, community advocate for the California Women's Law Center.
But others said that Davis has been such a disappointment that they will vote for Simon.
"Gray Davis had his chance," said Loretta Pierce, owner of Master Design, a Southern California apparel company for businesswomen. "It's time for a change."
Rebecca Vesely is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
For more information:
The Women's TownHall:
The Women's Foundation:
Bill Simon for Governor Web site:
Gov. Gray Davis campaign Web site: