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Wedgeless

I. Conventional Wisdom Error No. 1 - The Lungren Lock The talk in political circles these days is all about how the affable and passionate Dan Lungren will dispatch the painfully cautious Gray Davis - a candidate whose emotional constipation rivals Bartleby the Scrivener's - in the gubernatorial runoff this fall. The problem with this analysis is that it misses a defining aspect of the '98 campaign: that Republicans have run out of things to be passionate about.

For just as Republicans at the level of presidential politics have still not recovered from the end of the Cold War and their subsequent inability to label the Democrats as soft on communists, Republicans at the state level enter the '98 homestretch no longer able to play the crime and immigrant cards that have sustained them through the '90s. Attorney General Lungren may claim credit for the steep drop in crime, but in fact the drop has been so steep that crime just doesn't pack its customary punch at the polls. In primary-election exit polls, only 28 percent of California voters said it was their number-one issue, while 43 percent cited education. And Davis, having planned his run for governor for more than two decades now, is hardly a candidate to be caught on the soft side of any crime-and-punishment issue, be it three strikes, the death penalty, or more funding for cops.

If Davis affords Lungren little opening to run a wedge issue on crime, changes in California's demographics and economics have also made it all but impossible for Lungren to run against immigrants. In 1994, when California voters enacted Proposition 187, just 6 percent of the primary electorate was Latino. In last week's primary, 12 percent of the electorate was Latino - a bloc too large for Republicans to offend with impunity. Moreover, California's bouts of immigrant bashing have historically coincided with economic downturns and the concomitant need to find a scapegoat for hard times. 1994 was such a year; 1998, by contrast, looks to be a year of high employment and low xenophobia.

In sum, Dan Lungren enters the gubernatorial runoff without a wedge to call his own - in a state where Republicans characteristically owe their victories to their proficiency at wedge politics, at pushing those buttons that drive middle-class white Democrats into Republican candidates' arms. But Gray Davis has had 25 years to think this thing out, to know just how far he can go to forestall white flight and still not offend the party's nonwhite and liberal core constituencies. He led the opposition on the U.C. Board of Regents to dropping affirmative action, for instance, but he doesn't support rerunning Proposition 209, an idea his Democratic gubernatorial rivals embraced. He's an ardent supporter of gay rights and a pragmatic foe of gay marriage. Davis personifies decency right up to the point where it might become risky.

It's a measure of Lungren's desperation that the closest he can come to linking Davis to the kind of cultural liberalism that Republicans have grown accustomed to running against is to cite Davis' service as Jerry Brown's chief of staff back in the '70s. The problem for Lungren here is not merely the manifest differences between Davis and Brown. (Davis favored the death penalty, served in Vietnam, slept on a bed, etc., etc.) It's also that any candidate relying on the long-term memory of the California electorate should be prepared to finish no higher than second.

Indeed, the candidate with positions on the wrong side of the electorate in the coming runoff isn't Davis; it's Lungren. As Davis likes to intone, it's the A.G. who's been anti-choice, reluctant to ban assault weapons and slow to file against the tobacco industry. But Davis' greatest opportunity comes on the number-one issue, education, where the only remedy Lungren offers for the schools is a voucher program - a market-driven "solution" devised by the same think-tank wizards who argued there was nothing wrong with medicine that for-profit HMOs couldn't fix. If Davis can manage to counterpose a plausible program for improving the public schools - one that combines, say, real standards for teacher performance with real increases in teacher pay - the statehouse should be his. Not that a dearth of emotions is an asset in Oprah Age politics; but it beats coming before the voters with no issues at all.

II. Conventional Wisdom Error No. 2 - Those Centrist Latinos For over a decade now, the conventional wisdom among political analysts has been that Latinos, whenever they would finally burst upon the political stage, wouldn't be bursting stage left. Latinos weren't as liberal as blacks, the pundits said, pointing to a number of polls indicating widespread Latino opposition to welfare and support for police. If anything, the pundits have grown even more insistent on Latino centrism since last week's election, noting that of the four statewide Latino candidates going into November runoffs, two are Democrats and two Republicans, and that three Latino Republicans are likely to be elected to the Assembly (along with 15 or so Latino Democrats) this fall.

Up to a point, the analysts' argument is incontestable: There will be more Latino Republican officeholders than black ones; and on a number of critical issues, Latinos are more conservative than blacks.

Except when they're not.

Perhaps the most breathtaking figure in the CNN/L.A. Times exit poll of last week's election was the breakdown of the Latino vote on Proposition 226, the measure that would have required unions to obtain annual permission from members in order to spend dues money for political purposes. Unions, of course, battled this measure as they would a death sentence, and ultimately they prevailed: The measure went down by a 54-46 percent margin, with union members opposing the measure by a 67-33 percent margin. And Latinos opposing it by a 75-25 percent margin.

That's 12 points more than the margin by which Latinos opposed the bilingual-banning Proposition 227. It's also six points more than the 69-31 percent margin by which the purportedly more liberal black population of California opposed 226. Which made it the second time in a year that Latinos voted six points more liberal than blacks: In the spring of '97, L.A. County Latinos gave Proposition BB, the school-construction bond measure, 82 percent support while blacks were approving at a 76 percent rate. Couple these results with the stratospheric, 86 percent Latino support for the 1996 statewide initiative raising the minimum wage, and a somewhat different political profile of the Latino voter emerges. While Latinos have certainly hewed to relatively traditionalist positions on cultural questions (like the '96 medical marijuana initiative, which they narrowly opposed), they have clearly become the left-most group within the body politic on questions affecting working-class upward mobility: increased school funding, higher wages, union rights.

The Latino-labor urban coalitions emerging today in cities like L.A. do differ, then, from the black-labor urban coalitions of the past generation - not because they're more conservative, but because they focus on a different set of issues. The kind of chronic joblessness, or exclusion from the labor market, that dogs the black community in good times as well as bad is far less characteristic of Latinos. The latest unemployment figures show the jobless rate among African-Americans to be 9 percent; for Latinos, it's 6.8 percent. Nationally, the level of labor-force participation for blacks stands at 64.6 percent; for Latinos, it's 68.3 percent. Which means that while black-led urban coalitions have placed special emphasis on social welfare policy, Latino-led urban coalitions put their emphasis on reforms affecting low-wage work: living wage ordinances, minimum-wage hikes, the defense of union political programs. If this is a politics that the pundits want to call centrist, the left should be happy that no one's the wiser.

III. The Conventional Wisdom Gets One Right: Open Primaries, Centrist Nominees But the conventional wisdom can't always be wrong, and it was dead right on the effects of the blanket primary. The pundits told us that creating an open primary would lead to the election of more centrists, and that's just what happened last week.

The votes of two districts - one an Assembly district in the Torrance/South Bay area, the other a congressional district in the Sacramento suburbs - illustrate the point. The Assembly district, the 53rd, was a marginal seat held by Democrat Debra Bowen, who was forbidden by term limits from representing it any longer. According to registration figures from earlier this spring, the district is 42 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican. The moderate Republican expected to run for the seat failed to qualify for the ballot, leaving just one Republican, a staffer at the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation, on the ballot. A gaggle of seven Democrats, however, filed to take Bowen's place. Two of the three leading Democrats brought distinctly progressive resumes to the race; the third, Torrance city Councilman George Nakano, had a decidedly more centrist record. For Nakano, the open primary was open season on Republican crossover voters: He directed considerable mail to Republican voters, and on election day he doubled the vote of the Democrat who finished second. Fully 66 percent of the voters in the 53rd voted in the Democratic primary - a figure 24 percent higher than the level of registered Democrats. Clearly, Republicans were availing themselves of the opportunity to ensure that if a Democrat represented the district, he'd be the most centrist Democrat in the field.

A similar tale unfolded in the congressional district of longtime Democratic Representative Vic Fazio, who'd held on to his Sacramento-area seat by smaller and smaller margins over the past several elections despite the larger and larger campaign treasuries he'd been able to amass. When Fazio announced earlier this year that he would not stand for re-election, it was widely assumed that the district would flop Republican this November, and the Republican primary became the critical contest for deciding the district's next representative. In a closed primary, where only Republicans could vote for Republicans, Assemblywoman Barbara Alby, a primitive out of the GOP's Taliban wing, would surely have been favored. In last week's open primary, however, a large number of Democrats crossed over to vote for her moderate Republican rival, businessman Doug Ose, who'd sought their votes and ended up defeating Alby handily. Fifty-nine percent of all primary-day voters chose to vote in the Republican primary, though only 40 percent of the voters in the district are registered Republicans.

When voters enrolled in the minority party in this kind of race elect to cross party lines, they have a choice: They can either vote for the most extreme candidate of the other party, in the hope that the prospects for their own party's candidate in the November runoff will brighten when pitted against this lulu. Or they can hedge their bets by voting for the opposition candidate whom they can resign themselves to more easily should the candidate from their own party not prevail in November. Last week's results make clear that California voters don't go in for long-shot bets: By the evidence of these two races, and of the Republican primary for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat (where many Democrats crossed over to support Matt Fong over the more menacing if less electable figure of Darrell Issa), crossover voters do tend to go for the centrists, precisely as predicted.

IV. Avant-Garde Theater; Lousy Politics The more musically inclined readers of this column may be familiar with those Charles Ives compositions where the orchestra simulates the sound of two bands simultaneously performing different works, as though the listener were midway between bands on a parade route. A similar work in progress, it seems to me, is emerging from our local sheriff's election. On one side of the stage, Sherman Block has embarked on his own inimitable version of Lear, while on the other side, challenger Lee Baca is stumbling around with his road-show rendition of Hamlet. The resulting combination, alas, isn't going to be nearly as pleasing as Ives.