By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
We had ourselves an old-fashioned primary out here last week. One look at the returns and you could think we were back in the ’80s, when only white folks voted, law-‘n’-order initiatives exploited people‘s fear of crime, and Republican governors put wedge-issue propositions on the ballot to steer the electorate rightward.
Here, for instance, was Proposition 18, a measure extending the death penalty to new categories of crimes, placed on the ballot by old Governor Deukmejian, and that came complete with a ballot-pamphlet argument from the Duke that blasted the late Rose Bird. Dredged from another sewer was Proposition 21, old Governor Wilson’s measure that would ship off our more felonious early teens to hard-time, grown-up prisons rather than coddle them in correctional camps. And, of course, there was Proposition 22, the Knight Initiative, which banned marriages between anyone other than men and women (fixing an existing state law which merely banned marriages between anyone other than men and women).
All these measures passed handily last week. But the real blast from the past was the 49-percent-to-51-percent defeat of Proposition 26, which sought to specify a way to finance increased school construction in California. Prop. 26 was just the latest offering in a 20-year-old genre of how-to-get-around-Proposition-13 initiatives. Since Howard Jarvis‘ 1978 handiwork stripped from school boards their ability to raise property taxes, school districts have had to float bond measures requiring a two-thirds popular vote for passage every time they wished to build new schools. Prop. 26, which was supported by virtually every business, labor, teacher, parent, and Silicon and San Joaquin Valley organization in the state, proposed to reduce the requirement from two-thirds to a simple majority. For the past decade, nearly 90 percent of school-construction bonds have received majority support in California -- but only a little over 50 percent have received the required two-thirds. No analysis of why California schools crumbled into their decrepit state has failed to finger the two-thirds requirement, which time and again has enabled a minority of aging white homeowners, their own children grown, to vote down better schools for the state’s increasingly Latino student population.
This election, though, was going to be different. Improving education now polled at the top of everyone‘s concerns. More important, the old Jarvis electorate was wheezing its way to oblivion. Since 1994, and the passage of the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, Latinos had begun voting in far greater numbers. With that sea change in the state’s electorate, all manner of school bonds and minimum-wage hikes and even pro-union positions had begun to prevail at the polls. With the voting population now more diverse, Democrats had swept back into control of the Legislature, and had won the Governor‘s Office two years ago by 20 points. Surely, the time was ripe to revisit the two-thirds requirement.
Even the new political calendar, in which California’s presidential primary was moved from June (when the action was always over) to March (when state voters might actually make a difference), seemed to portend a change for the better, an increasing voter turnout. “We correctly anticipated a primary where California would be the focus of the presidential race, and where there‘d be a lot of voter excitement,” says Gale Kaufman, the political consultant who handled the Yes-on-26 campaign. “We anticipated incorrectly that a lot of that excitement would be on the Democratic side.”
Indeed, what killed Prop. 26 last week in California was that strangest of short-lived phenomena: the Bob Jones Bump. Determined to keep John McCain and his impostors from laying claim to their party, even if that meant voting for that frat boy from Texas, the Republican right turned out last week in numbers far exceeding any other group in the electorate. Orange County voters came to the polls as they hadn’t for 20 years, while voter participation lagged in the Democratic strongholds of L.A. (where turnout ran 5 percent below the state average) and the Bay Area (8 percent below the state average).
Worse yet, the racial composition of the electorate reverted to its pre-187 contours. Latinos were among the groups most supportive of Prop. 26 -- they approved it by a 61 percent margin -- but the Latino share of the electorate sagged last Tuesday to just 7 percent of the turnout, down from 12 percent in 1998. Two years ago, however, the state labor movement moved heaven and earth -- in Latino neighborhoods most especially -- in opposition to Prop. 226, which would have curtailed unions‘ involvement in elections. This year, Kaufman notes ruefully, “there was no Democratic get-out-the-vote at all.” Had Bill Bradley’s challenge to Al Gore been intense enough to compel the unions to campaign statewide for Gore, the electorate would have looked very different. As events had it, however, the unions had enabled Gore to dispatch Bradley in New Hampshire. By the time the Democratic contest rolled into California, it was already over.
Nor was that the end of Prop. 26‘s problems. Normally, support for a measure like 26 runs at least 5 percent higher in traditionally more liberal L.A. County than it does statewide. Last week, however, 26 ran only 1 point better in L.A., which strongly suggests that the prolonged debacle of the Belmont Learning Complex was a spike-size nail in its coffin.