SACRAMENTO — Reeling from a devastating special election loss to Democrats, frustrated Senate Republicans put the finishing touches on a plan Wednesday to throw out their top leader and replace him with veteran Sen. Ken Maddy of Fresno.
But the embattled incumbent floor leader, Sen. James W. Nielsen, who himself was installed as the Senate's top Republican in a coup 3 1/2 years ago, was not ready to concede defeat. "We're still counting votes," he said, as both sides prepared for a showdown vote today.
The showdown was made inevitable by Democrat Cecil Green's come-from-behind victory Tuesday over Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk) in a costly race to fill the seat of former Democratic Sen. Paul Carpenter, who had represented the 33rd Senate District in southeastern Los Angeles County and northwestern Orange County.
Green defeated Grisham, a former congressman, by a vote of 44,138 to 36,823--or 53.8% to 44.9%, with the remaining votes going to two minor-party candidates. The new Senate lineup has 24 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one independent.
Green's dramatic victory called into question the political skills and muscle of Gov. George Deukmejian, who immersed himself deeply in the campaign at its outset in January, when he met with Grisham and another major Republican contender, Don Knabe of Cerritos, and seemed to nudge Knabe out of the race. When Knabe dropped out, Grisham became the undisputed front-runner.
The contest, expected to cost about $3 million when the financial reports are tallied (for an office that pays $37,105 a year), was regarded by both parties as vital because each hopes to be in power in 1991, when the Legislature will reapportion California's congressional and legislative districts.
Deukmejian campaigned hard for Grisham but, as one Republican senator observed Wednesday: "He has no coattails, as we found out in the general election last year. You can't transfer political popularity in this day and age."
Some GOP legislators still are rankled because the governor, despite winning his own reelection race by a landslide last November, did not make what they thought should have been a major effort to help other Republicans on the statewide ticket. No other statewide Republican candidate won.
The March 17 primary election, in which Grisham was outpolled by Green and forced into a runoff, sowed the seeds for a Senate Republican leadership fight. Nielsen and Sen. John Seymour of Anaheim, the GOP caucus chairman, both were blamed for the poor GOP showing. Seymour announced his resignation weeks ago in the face of the leadership challenge.
Maddy, a moderate who terms himself a "pragmatic and realistic leader," and Sen. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin), one of the Legislature's most conservative members, teamed up in what appeared on Wednesday to be a successful moderate-conservative coalition. Doolittle is due to assume Seymour's caucus chairmanship.
Basking in victory, an ecstatic Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who made winning the election a personal crusade, said Green's triumph demonstrated that "with a good candidate and lots of organization, maybe special elections are going to be our Democratic strong turf rather than our weak turf."
Although Democratic leaders credited a finely tuned organizational effort for Green's victory, some GOP politicians blamed the loss on Grisham's inability to shake off a charge early on that he had sexually harassed and then fired a Capitol secretary.
The charge was leveled at a candidates' forum in La Palma in February by Carpenter, who accused Grisham of firing the secretary because she had "rebuffed his sexual advances."
The secretary confirmed the accusation and Grisham denied it, and the charge dogged him throughout the campaign.
"The overriding victor in this campaign was Paul Carpenter," said veteran Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights). "The sexual harassment charge was so devastating that all the other issues became incidental. It blew Wayne Grisham out of the water, and he never recovered.'
Another GOP legislator, who asked not to be identified, said that Deukmejian was privately advised to withdraw his support of Grisham "on the grounds of morality" after Carpenter's accusation but that the governor refused.
Deukmejian "got into it anyway," the source said, and as a result "he is tarnished, and I think he knows it."
The governor's press secretary, Kevin Brett, brushed aside the notion that Deukmejian had been damaged, asserting that the "governor will continue to work for Republican candidates throughout the state."
Hectic Final Days
The campaign took an odd twist in the hectic final days. Grisham was endorsed by President Reagan, but the letter was never mailed to voters.
On the other hand, Green, a former Republican, had a Reagan letter of his own. He sent voters a copy of a 1984 note of appreciation from the President thanking Green for his support in Reagan's successful reelection campaign.