California Republicans couldn't ask for a better demonstration of the dangers of buying a pig in a poke than what they're getting with this year's nomination of businessman William E. Simon Jr. for governor.
Make no mistake, the nomination of Simon was the ultimate political pig in a poke. Even today, this son of Richard Nixon's treasury secretary remains an unknown quantity to most Californians.
At primary day, not only had no one verified his loud and frequent claim of being a successful businessman, but few knew much about his positions except for his declaration that he's a "true conservative." Republican voters still don't even know the source of the $5 million he "loaned" to his primary campaign: Did he sell off stock and if so, what stock? Did he take it from a bank account? Did he borrow from his brother and partner?
These and other financial questions stay open because Simon hasn't answered them, just as he refused for months to release his tax returns.
The candidate's frequent refusal to be open is one big reason why he shows no signs of bringing home the bacon for the GOP. He has not closed the gap between himself and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis despite abysmally low job approval ratings for Davis, whose negatives far outweigh his positives in every statewide poll.
Simon's lack of headway also may be due to the fact that no one really knows yet what he means when he says he's a true conservative. But it's vital that voters understand what he means, because his philosophy will have vast implications if he should win the governor's office, the second most powerful political job in America.
No one can know where Simon stands on many issues because he keeps contradicting himself. Examples:
He told Republican voters during the primary season that he opposes allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. "You're basically punishing citizens," he told the conservative journal Human Events. "There are better priorities and my priorities would be citizens."
Then he told a Latino voting rights group he will gladly enforce the year-old law allowing undocumented students to pay the same tuition as in-state residents.
Which is the real Simon?
He campaigned around the state in June claiming he's "greener" than Davis, insisting he can do more to prevent new offshore oil drilling than the Democrat. But in July, he helped raise money for the Sportsmen's Coalition, for the "sole purpose of creating a campaign to reject environmentally friendly politicians," according to the state's League of Conservation Voters.
Is Simon an environmentalist or not?
He told a conservative radio talk show audience in February he'd be "happy" to have his legal staff look into an attempt at reviving the anti-illegal immigrant provisions of the 1994 Proposition 187. But he assured a reporter in June that he "will never participate in an attempt to revive 187."
Which statement was the truth?
Simon claims repeatedly to be a successful businessman, but insists he knew nothing about the failure of Western Federal Savings, on whose board of directors he sat and which was owned by his family's firm. He accepted the tax shelter designed by KPMG, but also says he knew nothing about it, insisting that "I rely on the advice of professionals for the treatment of tax issues."
How can he claim business success if he knows little or nothing about his personal finances or those of his companies?
In short, Simon steadily and repeatedly makes it difficult for anyone -- Republican or not -- to know where he stands or what he has or has not done. This makes him as unknown a quantity today as he was on primary day.
Better than any recent candidate, Simon thus demonstrates why California has a longtime tradition of not electing strangers governor. In the last 100 years, only two governors -- Hiram Johnson and Ronald Reagan -- were elected without first holding statewide office. Very few lesser statewide officials like controllers, treasurers and attorneys general ever reach office without first serving as mayors or legislators.
That's because California voters are skeptics, uncomfortable with trips into the unknown. Which helps explain why Simon has yet to show any sign that he can deliver this fall for his party, even against an unquestionably unpopular opponent.
Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.