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."
The two strode out, the mayor heading downtown and the businessman moving on to another meeting in an attempt to garner backers for his campaign to become the next governor of California.
Bill Simon Jr., born in 1950, benefited from a childhood under the protection of a doting mom and five sisters, Roman 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 Giuliani, and became an investment banker and philanthropist like his father, William E. Simon Sr.
The Nixon administration's secretary of the treasury died in June 2000, but 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, Mr. Simon seems comfortable with himself-but he will have to show the ability to win over voters who think of vegetables when they hear of squash.
Mr. Simon faces a tough battle for the GOP gubernatorial nomination against two likely contenders with proven political track records, California Secretary of State Bill Jones and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. If he wins the GOP primary, he will go up against incumbent Democrat Gray Davis, who increased insecurity in the Golden State early this month by blurting out unsubstantiated information about a rumored terrorist threat to several bridges.
The Simon strategy for winning is to emphasize infrastructure questions that California's energy shortage earlier this year made suddenly sexy. He will encourage private companies to build more power plants. He will push for more lanes on highways and for some private toll roads to receive clearance. None of this sounds spectacular, but Mr. Simon argues that "the terrorist threat causes people to be more focused."
Mr. Simon also 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. As vice chairman of Catholic Charities of California, he hopes to reduce the California wing's reliance on government dollars from the current 55 percent of its budget to under 40 percent.
On abortion, Mr. Simon is "definitely pro-life" but his wife is pro-choice: "We don't always agree. She's really strong in the belief that it's the woman's choice." He haltingly explains, "My dad was pro-life, my mother pro-choice ... It's an emotional issue for many women ... Some issues in your marriage you don't have long discussions about, because they don't impact directly your marriage."
Mr. Simon may have to think through the abortion issue further to gain some conservative support, but his drift is clear: Voters seeking protection for themselves will pay less attention to questions that seem not to affect them directly. With terrorists roaming around and voters worried about their own lives and futures, terrorism in the womb may receive even less attention. Elections will be won not by those who wake up voters but by those who promise secure sleep.
Can Mr. 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 Roman Catholic Church annulment, that "was a wake-up call for me." Now, "my faith is central to my life ... I try to go to church at least one or two times each week. We say grace before meals and a prayer at night."
The "we" includes Cindy Simon-a former United Church of Christ adherent who converted to Roman Catholicism several years ago-and their three children (13, 11, and 8), along with a 19-year-old daughter from his first marriage. Mr. Simon wants them, 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, as we'll find out during next year's gubernatorial and congressional elections.