Bill Simon's Queer Principles

The self-described courageous GOP gubernatorial candidate wants gays to keep quiet while they give him money and votes

By the look on his face on primary election night in March, Orange County Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut was high. The source of his bonhomie was not the Heineken in his hand, but the poll results: Bill Simon, darling of the right-wing, had just upset moderate Republican Richard Riordan for the chance to challenge Governor Gray Davis. In his post-primary column about the "principled" Simon, Greenhut wrote, "Conservatives got the last laugh."

Yet five months later, the only person laughing is Davis, who will likely win a second term in November. Far from letting his "principles" carry him to victory over the slippery incumbent, Simon has produced an encyclopedia of campaign blunders. The three hot topics of the 2002 governor's race have been: (1) Simon's nine-year-old role in the failed Western Federal Savings & Loan that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars; (2) Simon's suspicious refusal to fully disclose his tax returns; (3) Simon's liability in a recent $78 million fraud judgment stemming from an embarrassing pay-phone scheme with convicted drug dealer Paul Edward Hindelang.

Most loyal Republicans are saying Simon may not recover politically from the pay-phone scandal, but not the Register—a place where conservatives rule and irony never dies. On Aug. 2, Orange County's leading daily reluctantly admitted that Simon is a "damaged contender," but implored him to "develop the spin skills of Bill Clinton" and tell voters he deserves to be elected based on his "business skills."

Simon has indeed mimicked Clinton, but not quite in the manner the Reg might have hoped. He is playing to the Democrats, occasionally abandoning conservatives like Greenhut to romance Davis' electoral base of women, environmentalists and even—gulp—gays.

In late May, Simon put a warm smile on his usually plastic face and told a largely female audience in LA that while he is "pro-life," he would not use that stance as a litmus test for his judicial appointments. Last month, he targeted women again, pledging massive additional state funding of child-care programs—programs long dismissed by conservatives at the Register as evidence of encroaching socialism. About the same time, the challenger shocked his corporate backers—as well as such Orange County Republicans as Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach)—by announcing he is opposed to offshore drilling on the California coast.

Will we next see Simon hugging a homosexual? Absolutely not. Simon's campaign brain trust—Sal Russo, Steve Franks and Ron Rogers—has apparently decided that a signal of tolerance to gays would aggravate the state's excitable religious conservatives. In no place does that bonehead calculation manifest better than in Orange County, home to numerous wealthy gay Republican contributors. For example, the county's Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group, had been willing to convert its August barbecue and pool party into a Simon campaign event (without, for good reason, the spicy pool festivities). Members of the group wanted, as one put it, "to smooth over hard feelings of abandonment." A Republican Party source said, however, that Simon wanted "to quietly say he is gay-friendly" but "doesn't want any public announcement" of his position. Disenchanted, the gay Republicans dropped their pro-Simon rally. One top Log Cabin official told the Weekly, "No public announcement. No endorsement."

In late July, Laguna Beach's Frank Ricchiazzi—a onetime political appointee of Governor Pete Wilson and a longtime leader of Log Cabin Republicans—authored an e-mail that underscored Simon's increasing weakness among gay voters, a group sizeable enough to shift a close election in California. "There is a track record by the Log Cabin organization to help Republicans within the gay community," wrote Ricchiazzi. "The organization presently feels unwanted, neglected and clearly is not going to do anything to help Bill Simon." Indeed, the group's website (www.lcroc.com) doesn't mention Simon at all, and still lists Log Cabin's primary election endorsement of Riordan.

For Ricchiazzi, an often abrasive, pro-business conservative who personally backs Simon, the snub apparently hurts. The Orange County event would have shown "that Bill Simon can be trusted and that gay people can vote for him" because it would have been held in the "Republican bastion that features the more middle-of-the-road gays rather than the 'flaming liberal element' of Los Angeles or San Francisco," he wrote.

Back in reality, even some Log Cabin members say a Simon administration's hostility to the gay community is almost guaranteed. For example, Simon appointed West Covina's Mike Spence as a leader of his policy task force. Spence is a conservative Christian with a history of anti-gay bigotry. In 1995, as president of the local school board, he prohibited public teachers from attending a professional education conference because one of the 62 workshops included advice on dealing with sexual orientation. Spence, who also bills himself as a anti-abortion activist, told the Los Angeles Times at the time that he feared the teacher's workshop would promote homosexual behavior among students.

Not all gays are bothered by Simon's pathetic struggle with homosexuality. Brian Bennett—a spin master at Southern California Edison since leaving the closet and the side of his former longtime employer, the notorious anti-gay Congressman Bob Dornan—is reportedly trying to organize a quiet, non-threatening Republican Unity Coalition (RUC) gathering for Simon on Labor Day weekend in LA. According to a source, Simon could attend but avoid a big public show because the event would be billed as a reception for Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. She joined RUC in April and said she hopes to "make sexual orientation a non-issue for the Republican Party." A Simon campaign spokesman said he did not know if the candidate would attend.

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