Politics 2002: Year of the tycoon?

Wealth and no political record to attack may be the ticket, as in Tuesday's California upset.

With the first batch of primary elections of Campaign 2002 approaching, and Tuesday's upset in the California Republican contest, a particular type of candidate is emerging as dominant - especially in gubernatorial races: the wealthy political novice.

Bill Simon, a conservative investor who has never held elective office, handily beat former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (himself a wealthy businessman and one-time political novice) to win the California Republican gubernatorial nomination Tuesday.

In Texas, polls show the leading candidate in next week's Democratic gubernatorial primary is oil and banking tycoon Tony Sanchez, who also has never held elective office and has spent more of his own money than any candidate in the state's history.

This follows last fall's election in Virginia, where telecommunications millionaire Mark Warner won the governor's seat, and New York's mayoral contest, which went to billionaire financial services and media mogul Michael Bloomberg.

Throughout US history, rich Americans have sought office. But analysts say the number has spiked in the past decade - and more of them are winning.

While wealthy candidates used to appear more often in US Senate races, many are now focusing on gubernatorial ones, perhaps finding a more natural fit in an executive rather than legislative role. This year in particular, as states across the US struggle with budget woes, many candidates are touting their experience in business - rather than politics - as a strong selling point.

But it's also a matter of sheer cost. As the price of campaigns continues to rise, candidates who are willing to finance themselves and can dominate costly TV advertising have an increasing edge.

"Significant wealth is becoming a more important resource in political campaigns than it ever was before," says Jennifer Steen, a political scientist at Boston College. "To run for governor of a large state costs several million dollars. Even in California, where [campaign finance] regulations are very lax, it's really hard to raise that kind of money."

ANALYSTS say the budget shortfalls in many states add to the volatility in this year's gubernatorial races. Many incumbent governors, forced to slash programs and defer initiatives, may find themselves more vulnerable to challengers.

In general, this is bad news for Republicans, who are defending 23 of the 36 seats up for election.

But it has also created a situation where challengers from either party who can tout business experience and lack of political history may have an advantage.

"This might be the year for the political neophytes," says Henry Flores, an analyst at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

In California, of course, both Republican candidates were wealthy and had business experience. But Mr. Riordan's tenure as L.A. mayor, as well as his close ties to the Bush White House, made him the political insider.

It also gave him a political record that his opponents were able to use against him. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis ran a series of ads questioning Riordan's stand on issues like abortion.

Mr. Simon, on the other hand, had no record for Riordan to attack - an increasing advantage for candidates, say analysts.

"It's easier for voters to project their hopes on a candidate who has a blank screen than [one with] a history that will contradict their wishes," says Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Simon won because of money - and a creatable image that isn't undermined by a record in office."

The Simon camp clearly hopes the same strategy will be effective in the general election, emphasizing his image as a business-minded outsider in contrast to Governor Davis, whom it portrays as a career politician.

"... California voters are looking for someone fresh," says Sal Russo, Simon's campaign manager. "Right now, the voters are not too happy with Davis. He has bungled the energy problem and made it a crisis; we have a huge budget problem - come June, we may run out of cash and have to issue IOUs; and we are just one year away from serious drought."

A SIMILAR dynamic is playing out in Texas, where Mr. Sanchez, reportedly worth $600 million, has spent nearly $8 million on political ads highlighting his corporate experience as providing the right background to solve the state's budget problems.

"Sanchez is a neophyte, and one thing he's been pounding Morales about is being a professional politician," says Mr. Flores.

Although Morales charges that Sanchez is buying the election, Flores says there's little indication this line of attack has been successful. Particularly among Latinos - a constituency both candidates are hoping to win over - Sanchez's money is actually "a plus," he says, "because they see him as having a real shot" at defeating Republican Gov. Rick Perry in the fall.

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