Now and then, some unexpected event hurls itself into the public eye with such force that politicians can only quiver before it.
In 1974, Watergate was such a phenomenon. Republicans could not escape the taint of Richard M. Nixon and suffered major defeats at the polls, losing 51 seats in Congress. Then there was the California property tax revolt of Proposition 13 in 1978. It put a tombstone on an era of state tax increases and gave rise to a new generation of conservative fire-eaters in the Legislature.
Taxes and scandals are not part of the political chemistry of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird's 1986 campaign for reelection. But the struggle over the record and future of the state Supreme Court has spilled over into other political races across the state. And officeholders and office seekers in California are pondering whether once again a single issue like Bird will grow, shape and perhaps even dominate the year's state elections.
Republicans, who lead the opposition to the chief justice, are increasingly hopeful--and vocal--that it will.
Not only does Bird appear to be an unpopular figure who has come to symbolize a lonely opposition to the death penalty, they reason, but so many well-known Democratic leaders have jumped on the political fence regarding her reelection that the whole Democratic ticket may appear wobbly and vulnerable at the polls.
"Especially in years when the economy is good, the attention of voters drifts to other kinds of issues," reasoned one GOP campaign manager who asked to speak confidentially. "This (the Bird candidacy) is really a package of issues--the death penalty, gun control, crime, prisons, support for law enforcement and leadership. And when you put them all together, the lasting impression is that you're either right or you're wrong."
Senate Republican leader James W. Nielsen of Woodland said simply, "Rose Bird is probably going to be more exciting than anything else this year."
Bird holds a nonpartisan office, runs on a nonpartisan ballot and has specifically shunned partisan assistance. Nonetheless, Republicans confront her as a Democrat and as an issue for Democrats, on grounds that she was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., she worked in his campaign and Administration, she is identified with traditional Democratic liberal ideals and many of her backers are liberals.
She also has sided with Democrats, or at least liberals, on some key cases over the years--in particular, protecting a Democrat-drawn reapportionment plan for the Legislature and Congress from a GOP initiative challenge, a ruling that partisans on both sides take personally to this day.
Many high-visibility Democratic candidates, with their party groping to redefine itself and neutralize conservative gains, would prefer, however, to be exempted from the debate over the court election even as they seek to discount the suggestion that they can be tripped up by Bird's robe-tails.
The Los Angeles Times Poll in late January and early February found that up to a third of the voters would be less inclined to vote for major Democratic candidates who endorsed Bird.
"She's clearly damaging," said the director of the Times Poll, I. A. Lewis.
The state Democratic Party ended its 1986 election kickoff convention Sunday in Los Angeles and determinedly avoided association with the court election. The Democrats adopted a platform that otherwise addressed many liberal concerns--on civil rights, the environment and world affairs.
But when it came to Bird, party officials twice refused to have the convention consider a statement of support for reelection of the justices. Instead, the platform put Democrats on record in favor of lifetime appointment of appellate justices in the future.
No Democrat is caught more in the squeeze than Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who is preparing to launch his second run for the governorship against Republican George Deukmejian.
Moved to the Right
As part of a recasting of his image, Bradley moved to the right on two law-and-order issues, apparently to account for changing times. First, he surprised many close associates and put himself on record forthrightly in favor of the death penalty. And secondly, he reversed himself and said he would oppose a law controlling handguns. Now, he faces a third decision: what to say about Bird.
"There is a good chance this will be the dominant issue he has to face," said one of Bradley's close advisers.
The mayor recently bought himself some time--and probably heightened interest in his decision--by commissioning a group of unnamed attorneys and advisers to review the Bird record in detail and report to him. Campaign chairman Tom Quinn said Bradley will go so far as to read important cases himself "to see if there is any justification for the criticism that her decisions don't follow the law."