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.
Since primary electorates are usually smaller, and thus often more conservative, than their general-election counterparts, why put Prop. 26 — or for that matter, any measure that stands to gain from a high turnout — on the spring ballot? Part of the answer, says Kaufman, is that it’s more economical: “The same campaign in a general election would have been far more expensive,” she says, since higher voter turnout means more campaign mailings. She adds that the presence on November‘s ballot of a school-voucher initiative would make the fight to lower the school-bond threshold even more complex.
No postmortem on this most serious attempt in a generation to improve the state’s schools should omit the role of our self-described education governor — who proved to be as missing-in-action as the children whose pictures he once put on milk cartons. While elected officials, CEOs and other state leaders took an active role in the campaign for Prop. 26, Gray Davis was glaringly absent. Not until the waning days of the campaign did he even mention the measure; he certainly spent none of his political capital on its behalf. (Indeed, the chief object of Davis‘ fund-raising was — well, Davis’ fund-raising. In the closing weeks of the campaign, the governor‘s chief electoral activity was to raise money in opposition to Proposition 25, the campaign-finance-reform initiative that would have curtailed his ability to fund-raise for himself.)
So Knight won, and the Duke won, and the Little Marine won, and Howard Jarvis’ crotchety legions held firm. Does this rightward turn in the Golden State mean “that Republicans can rebuild the electoral coalition that once made California a linchpin GOP state,” as GOP consultant Tony Quinn argued in Sunday‘s L.A. Times Opinion section?
Absolutely not. Indeed, the single most remarkable thing about last week’s election returns is how mournful the GOP‘s numbers were, how ghastly the Republicans’ prospects appeared, even with an electorate that was more conservative than any in years.
This was, after all, an electorate in which George W. Bush and John McCain pulled down 51 percent of the vote in the presidential blanket primary, while Gore and Bradley managed to win just 44 percent between them. But even with this electorate, Gore led Bush, 35 percent to 28 percent, in the blanket primary, and, in a hypothetical runoff, by 51 percent to 43 percent in the exit poll of this rightward-leaning electorate. For the other statewide office, that of U.S. senator, this disproportionately Republican electorate voted by a 51-percent-to-23-percent margin for Democrat Dianne Feinstein over Republican Tom Campbell.
Mind you, this was with an electorate that the Times exit poll pegged at 81 percent white (up from 74 percent just two years ago). Come the November runoff, the white component is likely to decline to near 70 percent white, dragging down the electorate‘s conservative quotient correspondingly. Given how well Gore and Feinstein ran with the whiter, righter electorate of last week, does that suggest that this state will be even marginally competitive for Republicans with the darker, lefter electorate of November?
Not entirely believing in his own argument, Quinn goes on to suggest that Bush will have to campaign here if only because abandoning the state will ensure that the Republicans will lose four House seats. But with Bush now narrowly trailing Gore in a series of national polls, allocating scarce resources to California simply to save endangered Congressmen James Rogan and Brian Bilbray would be an exercise in sheer altruism. Nothing W. has said or done suggests that his conservatism is all that compassionate.
Besides, Rogan, Bilbray and their fellow endangered Republicans may be beyond saving. Politically, former House Prosecutor and Grand Inquisitor Rogan looks more and more like a dead man walking. With funding from a direct-mail list of certifiable Clinton haters, Rogan raised and spent $2.7 million on his uncontested primary campaign for re-election in his Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena district. His Democratic opponent-to-be come November, state Senator Adam Schiff, spent a bare $50,000 on his equally uncontested primary campaign. But in the blanket primary of last week, with Bush and McCain pushing GOP turnout to record highs, Schiff nonetheless outpolled Rogan by a 49-percent-to-47-percent margin among all district voters.
Rogan is just one of a number of California Republican congressmen who had trouble pulling down half the vote in their districts last week, conservative turnout or no. In the South Bay, one-term member Steve Kuykendall, who won a less-than-heartening 50.6 percent, faces a challenge from Democrat Jane Harman, who represented that coastal district from 1992 through 1998, when she opted instead to run for governor. In Long Beach, GOP Congressman Steve Horn received just 50 percent of the vote; he now faces a lively challenge from attorney and nurse practitioner Gerrie Schipske.
What should make the Republicans even more nervous about holding these seats is that they’re all located in terrains that by every single measure are shifting Democratic. As recently as five years ago, these were all swing areas represented in the Legislature by Republicans. Today, all these areas are represented in the Legislature by Democrats — in Horn‘s district, by progressive Democrats. The ethnic recomposition of L.A.’s inner-ring suburbs, abetted by the political mobilizations conducted in many of these areas by the L.A. County Federation of Labor, has transformed all these formerly Republican regions beyond recognition.
Which is why so much of the conventional literature on the changing political climate of California is a bit off-base in its rosy projections of a new conservatism. To be sure, the huge growth of such exurban or nonurban areas as Northern San Diego County, Riverside County and the San Joaquin Valley will create new Republican districts. But it is also the case that old-line suburbs that were previously Republican — not just in the nether reaches of L.A. County, but also in Northern Orange County and Western San Bernardino County — are moving Democratic. In some cases, even left-Democratic. Long Beach is likely to be represented in the Assembly after November by Alan Lowenthal and Jenny Oropeza — two populist progressives of the kind one expects from traditionally liberal Central L.A. districts. The San Gabriel Valley will be represented in Congress by Hilda Solis — one of the most pro-labor, pro-choice, environmentally friendly members of the state Senate, who‘ll bring those positions to Washington.
The story of the transformation of L.A.’s peripheries is in part the story of the resurgence of the L.A. labor movement, whose clout now reaches into almost all of L.A.‘s working-class burbs. The Fed was a major factor in Solis’ amazing 69-percent-to-31-percent victory last week over incumbent Congressman Marty Martinez, a centrist who‘d crossed labor at least one time (by supporting the administration’s fast-track proposal) too many. With the administration‘s new proposal to grant permanent most-favored-nation status to China shortly to come to the Hill, the fate of Marty Martinez may now loom large in the calculations, or apprehensions, of Grace Flores Napolitano — like Martinez, a Latino Democratic member of Congress from an Eastside, working-class, urban-suburban district, and, like Martinez, a charismatically challenged representative with an unfortunate propensity to line up with the administration in favor of the free-trade flavor of the month. What the Fed did to Martinez last week, it could do to Napolitano two years hence.
So, yes, that was a right-and-white electorate we heard from last week, but anyone who thinks it portends a Republican resurgence in California is lost in a dream, or a nightmare. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Governor Lungren.