GARDEN GROVE — After weeks when nothing seemed to go right on the campaign trail, Bill Simon was finally playing to a friendly crowd: the Rip Roaring Republican Rally.
“The people of California know what’s in my heart, they know I’m a regular guy, they know that I’m married to the greatest girl I ever could have imagined,” Simon told the gathering of mostly older women from an Orange County GOP organization.
“The fact is this,” he continued earnestly. “We’re regular people, with a regular family and kids that say the darndest things. But our hearts are full of love ... for all of California.”
The crowd cheered. Simon grinned in delight. But such approving audiences have been in short supply for the Republican gubernatorial nominee since his upset win in the March GOP primary to face Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in November.
His campaign has stumbled, and neither donors nor the moderate and independent voters who could help him to victory have responded as warmly as the Orange County Federation of Republican Women in early September.
Simon’s younger brother, Peter, said the nominee has found the campaign trail tougher than expected. But Simon said he does not regret trading in his routine of family, faith, charity and business for the harsh spotlight of a run for California’s highest office.
“If I don’t make it, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do, because having once had the taste of something as exciting as this, I’m not sure that going back to the old way is going to be something that will be interesting and exciting for me,” he said recently during an interview in his Santa Monica campaign office. “It’s a great thrill for me.”
Simon, 51, stepped into politics only recently, after years as an attorney, federal prosecutor and most recently co-chairman of his family’s New Jersey and Los Angeles investment firm, William E. Simon & Sons.
Friends and family members said they were surprised — some said shocked — when he decided to run for governor of the nation’s most populous state, his home since 1990.
Simon’s late father, William E. Simon Sr., was U.S. Treasury secretary under presidents Nixon and Ford. But friends said Simon never betrayed political ambition or even an interest in politics. As a youth, he wanted to be a doctor.
“I’d almost say apolitical. I never heard a word” about politics from Simon, said John Newman, a friend from Simon’s high school days in New Jersey who’s remained close to the candidate.
Simon grew up in suburban Summit, N.J., in the shadow of his forceful and mercurial father, who made millions as a leveraged buyout pioneer after he left government. When Simon Sr. died in June 2000, he left a fortune that had been estimated two years earlier at $350 million.
Simon was the oldest of seven siblings who lived a Norman Rockwell childhood. Their father took the train to Manhattan each morning while mom stayed home with the brood. There were family dinners and church on Sundays. Neighborhood kids crowded into the family home on Prospect Hill Avenue.
“Plain vanilla,” Simon calls it, but he never left it behind. With his exclamations of “golly” and “gee whiz!” he sometimes seems to inhabit the 1950s still.
“I marched on Washington twice; I grew my hair pretty long. Bill looked pretty much the same throughout,” Newman said. “I can’t really say I ever saw him rebel.”
Simon’s sister, Mary Streep, said their father had a standing offer for the siblings: Get to age 21 without smoking or drinking, and he’d give you $1,000.
“Billy was the only one who made it,” she said.
The dutiful son has become a dutiful campaigner, carrying around stacks of legal pads with careful notes on everything from the state’s water problems to a debate involving then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush that he watched on tape and wants to learn from.
Simon has convened 16 task forces focused on various issues and regularly rolls out plans on education, transportation, housing and other topics. They’re ambitious, but the details sometimes remain vague.
The nominee never released a plan to address the state’s $23.6 billion budget deficit, contending that was the governor’s job, not his.
A turning point in Simon’s life was his divorce from his first wife in 1984, after a five-year marriage. Devastating for an observant Catholic, the divorce also pushed him outward, and he got involved with Covenant House, an organization that helps homeless children. Charitable work would come to play a major role in his life.