More than 70 years after reformist Gov. Hiram Johnson turned California's political parties into what have been called "dead-end debating societies," change is in the wind.
A recent federal court decision has freed the parties to make endorsements in primaries, greatly increasing the chances for lively debate. The court also ruled the parties can determine their own membership rather than taking orders from Sacramento politicians, and that creates the possibility of new power bases for activists.
Both major parties are debating what to do with the new freedom given them by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It upheld an earlier court ruling that had said state laws prohibiting the parties from endorsing in primaries and organizing as they see fit violated First Amendment freedoms of free speech and association.
"What that court decision means is that if the state parties can raise some money (to back the candidates they endorse), you've got new power brokers in California politics," said Peter Kelly, chairman of the California Democratic Party.
The potential was quickly grasped by the state Republican Party, which is now considering making an endorsement in the 1988 presidential race at the party's next convention, Feb. 19 to 21 in Santa Clara.
"We now have the power to do it (make endorsements)," said Robert Naylor, chairman of the state Republican Party. "I don't know if we will, but here is an example of what could happen: Say (New York Rep.) Jack Kemp lost the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 16 but realized he had solid support in the California Republican Party. He could come out here and go for an endorsement that would put him back on his feet because of the national attention that endorsement would attract."
Some political professionals doubt whether either party will start making presidential primary endorsements anytime soon because it could be divisive.
Kelly, for example, said the state Democrats will not endorse in the 1988 presidential race because hard feelings left over from the primary endorsement debate could weaken the party's candidate in November. He acknowledged, however, that a future chairman of his party could push for an endorsing convention and probably get it.
AFL-CIO official Jim Wood, who is in charge of the state Democratic Party rules committee, said Friday, "There is no question the state party will start endorsing in partisan races below the presidential level. We are working up procedures now."
The professionals say that the court ruling will have a far-reaching effect on California politics. And no one knows it better than officeholders, long accustomed to controlling the parties.
"I frankly think this is a terrible decision," said Republican Assemblyman Ross Johnson of La Habra. "It is moving in the direction of undoing reforms enacted over much of this century. It will lead to having unelected party officials and groupies, if you will, in a position to powerfully influence elections.
"It requires no great leap of imagination to construct a scenario under which the party apparatus will play a more dominant role in candidate selection in our primaries."
What he means is that party activists can now back their own candidates in Assembly or state Senate primaries instead of being told by legislative leaders who the candidates will be.
Under the new rules, the party apparatus can endorse its own candidates in the primary and back them with campaign contributions and valuable volunteer assistance.
The legislators will always be effective fund-raisers, of course, because they can offer something tangible to contributors with business before the Legislature.
But political professionals believe the prospect of a bitter primary will make the legislators think twice about ramming their candidates down the activists' throats.
Moreover, the state parties will be helped in raising money thanks to their mastery of computerized voting lists and telemarketing techniques.
The state Republican Party has raised $17 million since 1983, Communications Director Joe Irvin said.
The state Democratic Party has raised far less than the Republicans--about $5 million since 1983--but plans are in the works to pull in much more money by offering contributors personal services, including job searches and special deals on credit cards.
"The key in the future will be to show party members that we can do something for them if they sustain us with contributions," said Michael Gordon, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party.
Said Caltech political scientist Bruce E. Cain: "The court decision will not mean that much unless there is campaign reform to change the way money is raised and spent in state legislative races."