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Crash Test

Is California heading for a green gotterdammerung this November? Could be, in the wake of last week’s legislative approval of L.A. Assemblywoman Fran Pavley‘s bill that places California in the forefront of efforts to fight global warming by cutting tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. Opponents are considering forcing a statewide referendum on the bill, which would make the Golden State ground zero in the struggle to control global warming.

L.A. Assemblyman Tony Cardenas came off the fence and provided the crucial 41st vote needed to win passage in the 80-member state Assembly. Now Pavley is concerned about what opponents -- dubbed the ”Greenhouse Gang“ by environmentalists -- might do to negate the action of the California state Legislature.

The seemingly stalled bill came back to life through Senate President John Burton’s (D-San Francisco) amendments that neutralized the heavily funded opposition campaign‘s claims that the bill would force new taxes and outlaw some automobiles, and also because of a more aggressive stance on the part of new Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Los Angeles), who had been stung by earlier reports that he had lost control of his caucus. Opponents have turned their attention to the Governor’s Office and beyond, though it appears that Gray Davis will sign the bill next week.

With Davis on board the environmental express, only two ways remain for the opposition to block the Pavley bill from becoming law: action in the courts, which appears unlikely to succeed, or a statewide vote to overturn it. Former Democratic Assemblyman-turned-superlobbyist Phil Isenberg, who led the campaign against the measure, is believed to be pushing for a statewide vote. Only 419,000 valid signatures are needed to qualify for the ballot, and the secretary of state must certify the count at least 31 days before the election. Possible delays in enacting the law are of little consequence; the measure doesn‘t go into effect until the 2009 car-model year.

How does this work for the historically cautious-to-a-fault Davis? ”This is huge, underline huge,“ said a top Davis adviser. ”This is the first real chance for Gray to break out of the morass and be out there on an unbelievably big-time issue. It’s California leading the way again, and it‘s liberating for him. I’ve studied the numbers, and the issue is ready.“ What about a referendum this fall? ”Let them try,“ he said. ”I think they‘d lose.“

Political sources tell the Weekly that signature-gathering firms have been contacted by the anti-Pavley-bill forces, which Isenberg would not deny. Reached in Washington, Eric Shosteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the muscle behind the operation, said that his organization had not contacted signature gatherers but ”someone associated with the campaign probably has.“ a

A source associated with the anti-Pavley-bill campaign says that for a statewide referendum, their side would likely bring in a new advertising firm, Goddard Clausen, which is owned by the same ad conglomerate that owns Porter Novelli, which did the ad and PR campaign that activated a conservative base against the bill. The firms share office space. Goddard Clausen principal Ben Goddard is perhaps best known for the highly effective ads against the Clinton health-care plan, which began with overwhelming support but collapsed amid a welter of confusing details. California political history has shown that popular ballot measures can be defeated through a ruthless exploitation of their complexity.

But there is another factor here, a complicating matter of time and election logistics. The Legislature had not yet sent the bill over to Davis earlier this week. Once he receives it, he will have 12 days to sign it. Only when he signs the bill can the opposition launch a signature drive. The less time they have, the more expensive the signature drive becomes and the chancier the prospects for getting on the November ballot.

If the signatures aren’t certified in time for the November ballot, the governor would then be asked to call a special election or wait until the 2004 primary. Unless the governor is Bill Simon, the governor won‘t call a low-turnout special election. Which leaves another likely low-turnout scenario, the 2004 primary. In most low-turnout situations, conservatives and Republicans do best. But in the 2004 primary, all the action will be on the Democratic side in the race for the presidential nomination. And every conceivable candidate would urge approval of the global-warming legislation.

”The greenhouse gang has to be very careful about this November,“ noted Sierra Club lobbyist V. John White, who coordinated the campaign for the Pavley bill. ”This would be the biggest environmental election in memory.“ A recent poll showed 80 percent of the public favored tightening car emissions to control global warming.

Democratic presidential candidates from Al Gore to John Kerry to Joe Lieberman -- all of whom helped pass the Pavley bill -- would come here to join the fight against global warming. U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., who also came out in support of the bill, would likely play a continuing role. Hollywood would become more mobilized. Warren Beatty, who helped line up McCain, and Robert Redford have been doing a lot behind the scenes. They and others would be confronted with the need to do much more in front of the camera, and financially.

And the opponents, led by carmakers, are massively funded, but they have no obvious public face. As oilmen, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney lack legitimacy and risk major embarrassment. The most logical choice is Bill Simon. But a Republican source in Washington notes his inconstancy on the issue and wonders about his credibility.

Last month, in response to questions from the Weekly, Simon shifted from vociferous opposition -- at least as expressed in press releases by his staff -- to a sort of confused neutrality. This neutrality continued last week when Simon was questioned on a San Francisco radio show about his changed position. ”I want to take a hard look at [the bill]. Reducing global warming, if indeed there is such a thing as global warming, you know is always a good idea.“ Simon has previously acknowledged the existence of global warming.

So the automobile-industry lobby’s high command in Washington, where General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler dominate, has much to weigh. Does that lobby want to try to block the new law through the electoral process or in the courts? Does it want to risk a major defeat in an actual election? Would it have a better chance now or in the 2004 primary, the next available election unless the governor calls a special election in the interim, a primary in which there will be no Republican contest and a host of Democrats anxious to prove their green credentials?


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