SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Political newcomer Republican Bill Simon Jr. has been the summer's biggest political surprise in California. After a primary in which he defeated the favored candidate, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, many pundits gave him no chance against incumbent Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.

But despite the naysayers, Simon recently inched ahead of Davis for the first time in the race to be the next governor of California.

Both candidates are Catholic, but on issues important to Catholic voters, they could not be further apart.

Davis has staunchly supported abortion and homosexual rights legislation during his four-year term. Simon is pro-life and supports the defense of marriage. Many of Davis' attacks on Simon have been centered on Simon's pro-life stand, and on the Davis campaign Web site, abortion tops the list of positions for which Davis attacks Simon.

Msgr. Edward Kavanagh of St. Rose's Church in Sacramento has stated publicly in the past that Davis ought to be excommunicated for his stand on abortion. Catholics “have to take a stand, the Church's stand on those things [abortion and domestic partnerships] despite what Gray Davis says,” Msgr. Kavanagh said. “Gray Davis is not thinking correctly.”

However, Msgr. Kavanagh said he likes what Simon stands for. “Simon is a good, moral man; I have no qualms about him whatsoever,” he said.

Msgr. Kavanagh also said he and several other Catholics are trying to organize a radio debate between Simon and Davis, which he hopes will give Catholics a better idea of the candidates and their positions.

The position the governor has taken – that he is personally in union with the Church's teachings but cannot impose his religious views on other people – is “baloney; a real cop-out,” Msgr. Kavanagh said.

Down But Not Out

Although Simon held a 47% to 45% lead over Davis in a July 30 poll by Survey USA, many pundits questioned the vitality of Simon's campaign after a judgment awarded $78 million on July 31 to a plaintiff who sued William E. Simon and Sons, an investment firm Simon founded.

The lawsuit was filed by Paul Hindelang. He had been replaced as president of Pacific Coin, a pay phone company, for lying on official documents about a previous conviction for drug smuggling. Simon and Sons and a partner acquired a 60% controlling interest in Pacific Coin in 1998. Hindelang alleged he was defrauded when the company later went bankrupt following a change in management policy instituted by Simon and Sons.

Although Simon himself was not named in the suit, editorials in newspapers around the state were quick to declare his campaign dead. Davis' camp also lost no time going on the offensive.

“In his relentless pursuit of money at all costs, he has engaged in fraud that will now cost his firm tens of millions of dollars,” said Davis senior political adviser Gary South in a statement.

The attacks on Simon's business dealings mark an important change in rhetoric from many of Davis' previous attacks, which focused on Simon's pro-life stand and lack of support for legislation favoring domestic partners.

Mark Miner, a spokesman for Simon's campaign, said these new attacks are untrue. According to Miner, William E. Simon and Sons is a large investment company that, like a mutual fund, invests in hundreds of companies.

“Bill Simon was not hands-on in this case,” he said. “This was simply one of hundreds of companies that his firm invested in.”

Miner also contested the fairness of the judgment and maintained, as Simon has, that it will be overturned on appeal.

“This was a flawed judgment,” he said, adding that the Simon campaign remains upbeat and expects Californians to vote for him in November.

Timothy Carney, an investigative reporter for the Evans and Novak Political Report, said he believes Simon still is very much in the race despite the negative fallout from the lawsuit.

“Simon made a big comeback and could do so again this fall,” he said. “Once a candidate has made a big comeback, you can't rule him out because he could make another one.”

Carney also pointed out that Davis' previous strategy of attacking Simon on values-based issues such as abortion has failed. “[People are more concerned with] corporate scandals, the stock market and the war,” he said.

The current governor's record has drawn criticism: He inherited an $8 billion surplus four years ago, but California now has a nearly $24 billion deficit, and he was widely criticized in the press for mishandling the state's energy crisis.

Now Davis, whose personal popularity in polls is less than 40%, has several ethical scandals on his hands.

“He has run a pay-to-play administration,” Miner said, citing the Oracle scandal in which millions of dollars of state money were spent last year buying software that an audit had revealed to be unnecessary. A few days after the deal, Davis received a campaign contribution of $25,000 from Oracle.

In late July, Davis again came under fire when it was revealed that a state board, whose members are appointed by Davis, had reversed itself in June 2000 and allowed Tosco, an oil company in northern California, to increase its dumping of toxic waste into San Francisco Bay shortly after the company contributed more than $70,000 to Davis' campaign.

The Davis campaign did not return requests for comment. In both cases, Davis has denied any wrongdoing.

Civil Union Debate

Karen Holgate, spokeswoman for the Capitol Resource Institute, a pro-family advocacy group based in Sacramento, said she worries that if Simon is not elected California will be the next state to adopt a Vermont-style “civil union law.”

“The same-sex marriage bill is coming back in January,” she said, and “whether it is signed or vetoed will depend on who is governor.”

She also agreed with political commentator Carney that the race is too close to call, and that despite the recent negative publicity Simon still has an even chance of pulling it out.

“One day I hear one thing, and the next day I hear something else; there is just so much negative information about Gray Davis' campaign contributions,” Holgate said. “The race is a toss-up.”

Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.