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Political Insanity in California -- Mr. Davis, Pull This Ad
September 15, 2002

Let's take a state, a very large American state. Redistrict it so it consists of mainly safe seats. The extremes of both parties get elected with little effort. Left-leaning media dominate the state's major markets, and openly despise conservatives and republicans. Now, watch as political insanity becomes reality or it seems.

That state is California, and there's a race for governor occurring there. A drab but ruthless incumbent, Gray Davis, and his campaign manager are approaching political insanity by not pulling an ad that is plainly untrue.

First some background, Davis has spent a great deal of time raising money for his re-election. An average $44,100 a day to keep his office," wrote Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Carla Marinucci. According to the Chronicle, Davis has raised an astonishing $78.7 million, with donations ranging up to $500,000 a check since he first ran for governor in June 1997.

How has he spent his millions? Running extraordinarily boring, repetitive attack ads on his challenger, Republican Bill Simon. With his huge cash coffers, you'd think he'd hire the best advertising firm in the country to create a nice variety of hateful, demeaning 30-second ads. But each attack is identical: A silent, running black and white streaming video of Bill Simon speaking, while a voice over headlines describes alleged Simon scandals - Simon's companies, his charitable contributions, and his policy positions. They run in the morning, at noon, and at night. They've run so often, they now have the effect of a department store Christmas campaign, running a week after Christmas.

But the campaign has reached the level of the insane. For several weeks, the Davis ads described a jury verdict that awarded the defendant $78 million in damages. The plaintiff was one of Bill Simon's companies, not Bill Simon. The defendant, a convicted big time drug importer, said that the Simon company destroyed his company in the process of acquiring it. But last week, on appeal, Judge James Chalfant threw out the verdict and awarded the Simon company $125,000 in attorney fees.

The Davis camp is reluctant to remove the ad. Remarkably, they may continue to run it because they believe that the basic message is still true - a jury awarded millions of dollars to the defendant. "Twelve Californians - Bill Simon's peers - found Bill Simon's firm guilty of fraud," senior Davis strategist Garry South said. "Nothing a judge can do will overturn that fact." Are we missing something here?

The people of California are more in touch with reality than the Davis-South team. On the day that the public first heard of the case and the verdict, Bill Simon and Gray Davis were in a virtual tie. After $30 million of attack ads, including the one that highlighted the fraud verdict, Simon was only seven points behind Davis.

Does this mean we're seeing the end of mass media smear tactics? Could it be that attack ads and the distortion of a candidate's background and beliefs are losing their punch? Don't count on it. But, the California gubernatorial campaign does show that millions spent on repetitive demonization of an opponent had better be based on the truth. The statewide media barely covered the overturned jury verdict. But it was reported. And the viewing public has an uncanny way of sifting the truth out of the barrage of attack ads thrown in front of them nightly. In other words, most voters, including Democrats, found the Davis whack-and-rack 'em money machine ads doubtful even before the jury verdict was overturned. Unfortunately, the ads are taking another toll. Voter turnout in November may be the lowest in California history.

And this story won't stop after November. For, if Gray Davis wins re-election, on the day after election day, he will begin his expected run for President. Then the country will be treated to his money machine turned on the incumbent President. The nation's voters will see on their TV sets the most vicious negative ads ever used in a presidential campaign. But it's just like Davis and his political insanity to think that he could ever win or be the leader of the United States of America. The rest of the country is not California, thankfully.


Award-winning TV producer, talk show host, and Republican leader Arthur Bruzzone has written over 150 political articles for national and regional media, and has commented on political issues for American and European television and radio networks.  His articles and columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Campaign & Elections Magazine, among other publications.

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