SACRAMENTO — Senate Republican Leader James W. Nielsen said Wednesday that the most effective political issue for Republican legislative candidates this year will be Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird--and it could spell defeat for some Democratic legislators.
"Any candidate is going to have to be accountable as to how they stand," Nielsen said. "If any Democrat choses to defend or support her, they have created a campaign issue."
Bird, who is up for reconfirmation on the November ballot, is under attack in a well-financed, highly organized campaign by opponents--particularly Republicans--who criticize her and the court for overturning the death penalty in 52 cases.
Nielsen, while acknowledging that legislators have nothing to do with the workings of the court, said Republican candidates for the Senate will challenge Democrats by making the issue of Bird's reconfirmation "a litmus test."
"The people don't really understand that the Legislature doesn't have anything to do with the decisions of the court," the Woodland senator said during a breakfast session with The Times' Sacramento bureau. "I think they have a perception that something's wrong, that criminals have too many rights. . . .
"I think you just simply tie it into a campaign theme: 'This individual is not the kind of individual that ought to represent this district and here's an example; they're for Rose Bird.' "
In evaluating the issues facing the electorate this fall, Nielsen indicated that not even the question of how to clean up toxic wastes is likely to rival the Bird confirmation for top billing.
"Rose Bird is probably going to be more exciting than anything else this year," he said. "That's rather good (for Republicans). I think Rose Bird is a cutting issue."
Nielsen named three Democratic senators who could be particularly vulnerable on the Bird question: Majority Floor Leader Barry Keene of Benicia, Leroy Greene of Carmichael and Dan McCorquodale of San Jose.
Keene is on record as supporting Bird. Greene, when contacted by The Times, declined to state his position. McCorquodale said he has not entirely made up his mind, but "if I had to vote today, I would probably vote against her."
On another political matter, Nielsen said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich could lose support from Republican faithful in his quest for the U.S. Senate nomination because of criticism over the job he did as state Republican Party chairman. Antonovich stepped down from the post in December to concentrate on his Senate campaign.
"He's got a problem in the party," Nielsen said. "The party folks who know know he didn't do a very good job. It's no secret that the party, at a time when everything was going our way, did a lousy job in fund raising and ended up very destitute."
Antonovich defended his record as chairman, saying Republicans had made significant gains in both voter registration and fund raising during his tenure.
"The party is in good shape," he said.