RIVERSIDE — Bill Jones stands at a podium on the stoop of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, outlining his economic platform.
He reads from a prepared text. The wind is whirring, a nearby tractor is roaring, and a reporter struggles to hear him.
The only reporter struggles to hear him.
Just one local writer has appeared for a lonely press conference that epitomizes the Republican secretary of state’s campaign for governor.
Just two months before the primary election, Jones struggles to raise money and generate enthusiasm for his campaign.
The only Republican holding statewide office, Jones has proved he can slice across party lines to win votes, but he is considered an underdog. Party leaders desperate to win an election have shrugged him off, showing little faith that he can collect the cash and votes to do it.
As the Riverside event illustrates, his shoestring campaign at times seems more like a bid for a local school board than the state’s top job.
But Jones presses on. Driven by his rancher roots, a deep seriousness and quiet determination, he traverses the state — addressing strawberry farmers in Orange County and a Kiwanis club breakfast in Clovis, Calif., in the Central Valley one day and blasting Democratic Gov. Gray Davis to Sacramento business leaders, the next.
While his opponents crisscross California in plush chartered planes financed by powerful donors, the 6-foot-2 secretary of state sips a Diet Coke, crunched into a seat on a packed Southwest Airlines flight. He’s unruffled.
“I’ve never run in a majority Republican district and I’ve never had the resources that my opponents have had,” Jones says.
The 52-year-old served for 12 years, from 1982 to 1994, in the state Assembly and rose to Republican leader with the help of Republican then-Gov. Pete Wilson.
Jones worked as a rancher for 10 years before he ran unsuccessfully for Assembly for the first time in 1976. Before that, however, he tasted politics at California State University, Fresno, where the conservative member of the agriculture fraternity was elected senior class president amid a campus of liberal, anti-war era students.
“I’m accustomed to working as a minority in a majority government,” Jones says.
He points to his trademark legislative achievement, co-writing the state’s “three-strikes” law while serving in a Democrat-controlled Legislature, as an example. As secretary of state, he has been recognized for helping to modernize the state elections office, clamping down on voter fraud and making campaign finance records available over the Internet.
He has avoided the scandal and controversy that sometimes accompanies 20 years in politics, and he is often called a downright nice guy.
But his low-key style has hurt him, some observers say. On campaign stops, Jones often lapses into long, professorial speeches that don’t engage the crowd. His shyness also makes asking donors for money more difficult.
In the past year, he has tried to abandon his non-confrontational style, attacking Davis for alleged ethical breaches among his energy advisers and accusing him of bungling the state’s fiscal troubles.
He also has mounted an uncharacteristically aggressive assault on Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who leads most polls, accusing him of holding liberal views and criticizing him for donating to Democratic campaigns. Jones is less pointed about businessman Bill Simon, simply saying he has no public record and would be a risky choice to run the state.
At heart, Jones’ family and friends say, he is a shy farmer.
“He is an individual who has no pretentiousness,” says former California Gov. George Deukmejian, who is helping with Jones’ campaign.
Even Jones’ wife of 30 years, Maurine Jones, describes the father of two grown daughters as “very quiet, very serious.”
“He doesn’t show his lighter side unless he knows you well,” she says.
Jones’ family farm near Firebaugh, Calif., includes roughly 6,000 acres of tomatoes, asparagus and alfalfa, all of which are run cooperatively by relatives including his parents and 27-year-old daughter, Wendy, and son-in-law. The governor’s race is also a family affair, with Maurine often stumping with him and his 24-year-old daughter Andrea working for his campaign.
A pilot, Jones owns a single-engine Cessna and often flies himself home from Sacramento. He has used the plane for campaigning, but he says he never flies in anything resembling bad weather.
On the farm, Jones works mostly on the business side. He relaxes by heading to the coastal mountains to hunt wild boar and ducks. He beams when speaking of his toddler granddaughter, who has appeared at campaign events and who, he boasts, has attended more state Republican Party conventions than Riordan.
His father, a farmer and 47-year local water board member, inspired Jones to go into public service. His lifestyle growing up, he says, helped him succeed at it.
“I grew up pretty much in the country with a horse and a dog, where I was always working,” he says.
Deukmejian describes Jones’ as responsible, open to advice and adept at moving on in the face of disappointment.
On the early January press conference in Riverside, Jones’ aides are unapologetic for the disappointing turnout. It was a day before President Bush arrived for a town hall meeting in nearby Ontario, and they chalk it up to bad timing because political reporters were busy, they say, preparing for the presidential visit.
Their reasoning also highlights one of Jones’ most discussed political blunders. In 2000, he switched his endorsement from Bush to Arizona Sen. John McCain during the California primary campaign.
Jones says he was acting in the best interest of California Republicans, who had suffered three straight statewide losses. McCain, he says, had a better chance of winning California.
But some party activists haven’t forgotten, and some blame the switch for Jones’ fund-raising problems.
He hasn’t drawn the help of rich GOP donors considered critical to a statewide race in California. Both Riordan and Simon have outraised him, although neither has won statewide office. Both have deep personal wealth to tap that Jones does not.
In all of 2001, Jones collected $2.4 million for his campaign, including several large loans. That compares to $6.6 million raised by Riordan and $5.7 million by Simon in the same time period.
Jones has a favorite quote that he repeats when asked about his lagging finances.
“President Ross Perot and Governor Al Checchi and Senator Michael Huffington will tell you that money is not the sole solution to politics,” he says, referring to three candidates who lost after pouring millions of their personal fortunes into campaigns.
Analysts say Jones’ simply lacks the knack to lure dollars.
“He’s not a good fund-raiser,” says said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which tracks political races.
Still, Jones’ strategists are counting on strong support from Jones’ home turf of the Central Valley, and from conservative primary voters put off by Riordan’s relative liberalism. In a recent independent statewide poll, Jones led his two foes in the farm-rich Central Valley, but trailed everywhere else.
Jones says he’s confident the wounds within his own party will mend, adding that a recent trip to Washington reassured him.
“People were trying to figure out how to win California,” he says, “and I’m the only one that has done that and I’ve done it twice.”