Will insecure voters crave secure candidates

Posted: Nov 13, 2001 12:00 AM
Until Sept. 11, Democrats mad about George W. Bush's "stealing of the presidency" were hot to trot, and conservatives upset about the Bush centrist strategy on many issues were ready to rumble. Now, though, the search for security is trumping all other questions, and if that trend continues, a lot of election races across the country a year from now will be enormously changed. The race to be governor of the nation's biggest state provides one example. Two months ago, at 8:50 a.m. on Sept. 11, two Republicans were eating breakfast in New York City. One of them, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, received a message and told the other, businessman Bill Simon, "You won't believe this -- the World Trade Center has been hit by a plane." Giuliani then headed downtown while Simon moved on to another meeting in an attempt to garner backers for his California gubernatorial campaign. He needs many such meetings, because in the GOP primary he is likely to face California Secretary of State Bill Jones and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. If he wins that, he will go up against incumbent Democrat Gray Davis, who early this month blurted out unsubstantiated information about a terrorist threat to several bridges. You might think that Simon would be determined to find some hot-button social issues as a way to gain voters' attention. Nope. The Simon strategy for winning is to emphasize infrastructure questions. He will encourage private companies to build more power plants. He will push for more lanes to be added to highways and for some private toll roads to receive clearance. None of this sounds spectacular, even in a state that faced potential energy shortages earlier this year, but Simon argues that "the terrorist threat causes people to be more focused." Simon's drift is clear: Voters seeking protection for themselves will pay less attention to questions (such as terrorism-in-the-womb abortion) that seem not to affect most people directly. Elections will be won not by those who wake up voters, but by those who promise secure sleep. Simon hopes to become the favored candidate of conservatives, without taking on positions that could hurt him in the general election. On education, he notes that "vouchers are a loser in this state" and talks instead of increasing the number of charter schools and bringing in private companies to take over failing schools. He embraces compassionate conservatism and emphasizes his philanthropic work. He is also hoping that voters will support those who seem personally secure. Simon, born in 1950, benefited from a childhood under the protection of a doting mom and five sisters, Catholic church attendance and plenty of money. He attended tony Williams College in Massachusetts, where he became captain of the squash and tennis teams. He then went to Boston College's law school, worked for three-years as a federal prosecutor in New York under then-U.S. Attorney Guiliani, and became an investment banker and philanthropist like his father, William E. Simon Sr. The Nixon administration secretary of the treasury died in June 2000, but he still seemingly lives on in his son's home in the posh Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles. A portrait of his father dominates one wall of Bill Simon's study, and family mementos are prominently displayed. Like George W. Bush, Simon seems comfortable with himself and capable of winning over voters who think of vegetables when they hear of squash. Can Simon understand voters' anxieties? He talks about his one insecure decade: "In my 20s, not unlike President Bush, I went through a wilderness period." The Simon wilderness included a marriage that after four years ended in separation and then a civil divorce, accompanied by a Catholic church annulment, which "was a wake-up call for me." Now, "my faith is central to my life," as is his second marriage and the three children who are products of it. Simon wants his family, and other Americans, to feel secure without taking security for granted: "When things are going well, you think you're invincible. It changes life when you know there are people in the world who would like to see you dead." It changes politics, too.