AT ABOUT 9:30 A.M. ON SUPER TUESDAY, outside a fire-station-turned-polling-place on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, Fabian Nunez was still able to imagine not looking for a job outside of the California State Assembly he has controlled for four years.
“I don't operate on hypotheticals,” said the Assembly speaker, whose only hope of avoiding ouster-by-term-limits was the passage of Proposition 93, which he created. Then Nunez got into his chauffeured black Lincoln Town Car and sped away, ending a photo op that never really began. Two TV reporters lobbed him “softballs” in front of the firehouse's drab wall. There were no smiling kids, fawning constituents — or even friendly voters.
A little after 1 a.m. Wednesday, when Prop. 93 was declared dead — losing 47 percent to 53 percent — Nunez's career outside the Assembly was officially no longer hypothetical, it was guaranteed. And it's not just Nunez. Now, 41 other incumbent legislators of both parties — a third of the Legislature — won't be allowed to duck term limits. This year, most of them will lose their seats — and the nearly $150,000 in annual salaries and per diem, taxpayer-funded $500-per-month car leases, and lobbyist-paid “conferences” in Hawaii.
Many termed-out Assembly members, such as Democrat Lloyd Levine of Van Nuys, under existing law can run for the state Senate, but they'll have to fight it out against others from their own party in hotly contested primary fights. Several longtime state senators, such as Republican Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, who have already used the Assembly-to-Senate route and have now exhausted every trick for clinging to a legislative seat — are forever termed out of the Legislature following Tuesday's vote.
Voters simply did not buy the measure's billing as a way to “strike a balance” between experience and term limits. Term limits, approved in 1990, cap legislators' time in the Assembly and Senate at six and eight years, respectively. Total time allowed in Sacramento is 14 years.
Some political scientists had argued that term limits push out legislators while they are learning the complexities of their respective houses in the Capitol. But Sacramento's big-money lobbyists avidly backed the very measure supposedly designed to quell their influence (see chart), understanding Prop. 93 as a way to hang on to lawmakers whom they'd spent years “educating.”
Some of the biggest lobbying groups with permanent offices in Sacramento — like the Service Employees International Union, California Teachers Association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and California Hospital Association — helped flood the Yes on 93 campaign with nearly $16 million.
Nunez, sounding defensive before he vanished from Los Angeles on Election Day, missing some celebrations feting his presidential choice, Hillary Clinton, insisted to L.A. Weekly, “Everybody running for office has taken money from everyone they can get money from. Political contributions are the result of how much you work and how hard you knock. You know, asking for contributions from folks. We think it's the right way to go.”
The failure was also a loss for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who backed Prop. 93 to preserve the careers of his cross-party allies — close friend Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. This, despite Schwarzenegger's public promise, many times, not to alter or soften term limits until Nunez and other leaders fixed their long-standing “safe seats” scheme that virtually guarantees that Democratic and Republican incumbents are returned to office in Sacramento.
FOR NO ON 93 SPOKESMAN Kevin Spillane, victory was particularly sweet, given a ballot title that was confusing and bitterly disputed, and the fact that “they had the governor campaigning for them and about a $10 million advantage. We thought it would be within five points. It was six!”
With its $7 million war chest financed by GOP gubernatorial hopeful and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner — a longtime fan of term limits — and wealthy small-government advocates like U.S. Term Limits Inc., the “No” campaign personalized the shamelessness of 93's poster boys, Nunez and Perata.
Opponents had a lot to go on: Nunez's political consultant Gale Kaufman ran the Prop. 93 campaign, and his political action committee contributed more than $1 million. Because it was rarely noted by the media, few voters realized that Nunez pushed hard to include California in Super Tuesday in large part because the early primary would give him enough time to legally run in June for his, he hoped, no longer term-limited seat — if Prop. 93 passed. Had it worked out, the early-primary ploy would also have given several other legislators just enough time to run again. Some of them showered Prop. 93 with cash. Moreover, a special clause in the failed measure applied only to Don Perata, virtually assuring him four more years.
“People … don't like politicians pulling sneaky power grabs,” sums up Spillane. “That's what this was.”