Writers on the Storm

Flying around with the Bill Simon press corps

Bill Simon advance man Eric Beach speeds around the tarmac at the Santa Barbara airport like he has a bellyful of meth. He'd set the stage with blue Astroturf and taped down every cord. An American flag—stolen from a local elementary school—flies above the riser; Beach left a note at the school saying he'd return the flag later. It's standard operating procedure with flags. Nobody ever seems to mind.

But Beach let one thing slip: the event soundtrack is songs, and he doesn't notice the opening wheezes of the Bob Dylan classic "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," which includes the oft-repeated refrain, "Everybody must get stoned." I am laughing my ass off. State party political director Nathan Fletcher snaps Beach out of his reverie—the haze that might settle on you when you've almost completed cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner for 12.

"Dude!" Fletcher says, "fastforward through this song right now!"

* * *

I'm in Santa Barbara three days before Election Day to join Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon's last-ditch, airborne, multicity Fire Gray Davis Tour. My boyfriend, Jimmy Camp, is Simon's political director. To be totally honest, I want Bill Simon to win: I don't want an unemployed boyfriend, and a win-bonus would allow us to do the unthinkable and buy a house. I would personally benefit by the Republicans taking the governor's mansion. And that's why I could never vote for Simon or write anything that could help his candidacy: I often like Republicans as people, but they're almost universally disastrous for the hopes of average Americans.

Most of the state Republican ticket is on Simon's 727 when it touches down. Staffers and reporters emerge from the rear; candidates spill out the front. OC state Senator Dick Ackerman, running for attorney general, is there; in a blue blazer and white paints, he ought to be on a yacht. Bruce McPherson (lieutenant governor) is there, too, and crotchety old Greg Conlon (treasurer) and Tom "The Devil" McClintock (controller). McClintock has great ads; too bad he's the Devil. When they appear in the plane's doorway, Bill and Cindy Simon beam contagious smiles.

Brent Lowder, Bill Simon's bodyman, is holding an orange. "Hey, Brent," I say. "What's the orange for?" Since he's holding it rather gingerly, I assume it's not for lunch. "When Ronald Reagan was traveling, he used to sign an orange and roll it down the aisle to the press," he says. "They'd write a question on it and roll it back. They want Bill to do that, too."

"That is super gay!" I tell him.

"I know," he says.

* * *

On the plane, I introduce myself to the woman in the next seat, San Jose Mercury-News reporter Laura Kurtzman. "Sorry for not being more social," she smiles politely, as she types on her laptop, earphones on. She could be listening to gangsta rap. Next to Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Finnegan, there's Dave Drummond, a young guy from a paper in Ontario.

On the campaign plane, we can talk on cell phones, loll in the aisles and not wear seat belts. In a wink, we're in Monterey. The hangar is as luminous and bright-white as the TV room in Willy Wonka. Simon tells the crowd one in three classrooms lack textbooks and one in four is home to cockroaches and other vermin. The Democrats have let insurance get too expensive, Simon says straight-faced. Really, he should blame the trial lawyers. But, no: he blames the lawyers for out-of-control workman's comp settlements. That'll work just as well. And we're done.

* * *

We get the first press avail with Simon on our flight to San Jose. Erica Werner of the Associated Press sits beside him. Kurtzman hangs over the seat back, taking notes. Finnegan and Drummond stand in the aisle, bracing their legs wide even as the plane lands in San Jose. I'm struck by how respectful the press are. Their few questions are well-modulated and not at all argumentative. They don't interrupt. They don't shout. They're almost meek.

* * *

San Jose is the day's only stop that won't take place in a hangar; we're bused to the Hyatt for a luncheon rally. I sit down next to Werner, and she changes seats. Do I smell?

Consultant Sal Russo tells the press about the ad they're going to unveil, which will tie together all of Gray Davis' ethical ambiguities with charges from former Coastal Commissioner—and convicted felon—Mark Nathanson, who says Davis was a co-conspirator in a bribery scheme. "It doesn't matter whether Nathanson told the complete truth," Russo says. "We know his statements contain strong elements of truth." He also says the energy crisis wouldn't have happened under former Republican governors Pete Wilsonor George Deukmejian.

Say what? Wilson used to declare energy deregulation one of the two great triumphs of his administration—Proposition 187 was the other. But the reporters are too well-mannered to point this out or just don't remember. Nor do they ask Russo if it's wise to trumpet the statements of a jailbird so soon after the campaign's last unsubstantiated charge—that Davis took an illegal contribution—blew up spectacularly in their faces. Not one of us mentions this. But out of earshot, everyone is happy to hold opinions

* * *

Poolside at the Hyatt, Ackerman and Newport Assemblyman John Campbell gab on the patio, and I raise my disposable camera to snap their picture. The two start to pose. "No, no!" I say. "Candid!" They fake a meaningful conversation. "Grrr! Poor people!" I prompt, but they don't buy it. "For the kids!" Ackerman tells Campbell. "Yes, for the kids!" Campbell agrees.

* * *

With the exception of McPherson's guy Adam, who's friendly with all of us, Simon's staffers chill the press. His press department is run by survivors of Bill Jones' losing gubernatorial campaign, including his young daughter, Andrea. They're all nice to me but cold toward most of the other reporters, and I decide this is absolutely retarded. Schmooze us. Stroke us just a little. Make us feel like bad friends if we have to write bad things.

On the plane, nobody asks questions, nobody talks politics; reporters type or read the paper.

* * *

Nine hours, six cities, one private jet, 17 cigarettes, five hangars, 82 passengers, two press avails, one Coors heir. At 8 p.m., we fly into San Diego, bus to the Hyatt and try unsuccessfully to party.

Sunday morning, Arizona Senator John McCain joins the party. McCain looks frail, and I worry about him standing so long in the sun. Afterward, they're actually doing a press avail—these are rare—when the most dramatic tiff between press and politico emerges.

"One of the PR guys told one of the print reporters to shut up!" an ABC affiliate cameraman tells a small group. The others sniff and sneer.

I ask Finnegan who told whom to shut up.

"Craig Turk told me to shut up," he answers.

On the bus, Jimmy sits next to me and whispers, "I have a Michael Finnegan story."

"Already heard it. Craig Turk told him to shut up."

"Finnegan hit [Simon's son] Griffy in the head with his microphone while they were trying to take a family picture!" Jimmy says with contempt.

"Was he hurt?" I ask, feigning stupidity. It's a very small microphone.

"Maybe we shouldn't talk about this right now," Jimmy returns in a clipped voice. We're silent for the rest of the bus trip to LA.

I turn to the campaign manager of Anaheim's own Kathy Smith, a sweet, genuine lady running for superintendent of public instruction.

Why does she call herself an educator when the last time she taught was in the '70s? And then as a sub?

Clearly, she has been influencing education for six years on the Anaheim school board, he answers pleasantly.

What about her "Stand in Respect" program, in which the goal of education becomes teaching military manners?

They had a pilot program on etiquette last year and didn't have enough room for all the kids who wanted to take it, he rejoins easily.

We start arguing about unions and phonics—actually, I argue; he's unfailingly easygoing. It's terribly unprofessional. The real reporters hide smirks. "Where does Kathy stand on Creationism?" I ask.

"I honestly don't know," he answers. "Do you want to talk to her when we get to Olvera Street?"

Yes, please.

* * *

At Olvera Street, I ask the other reporters—on the record—if I'm correct in thinking relations between Simon's staffers and the press are unusually bitter. John Wildermuth, who has been covering politics for the better part of 20 years, most recently with the San Francisco Chronicle, says, "If people aren't yelling at me or actively working against me, I'm a happy guy. You don't have to schmooze me or stroke me." Werner walks away.

COMMIEGIRL99@HOTMAIL.COM.

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