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Democrats Will Endorse in Primary; GOP Won't

February 18, 1988|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to avoid divisiveness, the California Republican Party has decided not to exercise its new-found right to endorse candidates in primary elections. Not so the state's Democrats, who have generated controversy before bestowing a single endorsement.

State Democratic Chairman Peter D. Kelly said Wednesday that he expects the party to throw its support to Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy for this year's Democratic U.S. Senate nomination at its March 20 convention.

"I would think that vote would be overwhelmingly in his favor," Kelly said after a Los Angeles news conference called to discuss the party's new endorsement process for the June 7 primary.

"He's been an elected official for a number of years, he's had a distinguished record of public service, he's had a particularly close relationship with the state party. . . ."

While expected, the party's endorsement of McCarthy would represent a lost opportunity for his opponent, former KABC commentator Bill Press, to make much-needed inroads. Polls show McCarthy holding a commanding lead over Press in the contest to decide who will oppose Republican incumbent Pete Wilson in November.

Informed of Kelly's remarks, Press immediately called for the chairman's resignation.

"He ought to step down if he is taking sides in this primary before the delegates have voted," Press said angrily. "I think he's attempting to dictate the decision. He is attempting to take away from the delegates the power that has just been given to them by the courts. This is Pete Kelly's attempt to restore bossism to California."

Press said he intends to seek the convention's endorsement. "I hope to compare my vision of California with Leo McCarthy's vision," he said.

Not surprisingly, McCarthy's camp heralded the value of the party's support.

"Any candidate running as a Democrat who can't claim the party's endorsement shouldn't be running," campaign manager Larry Kamer said. "It gives us that much of a leg up."

While such intra-party sniping may be old hat, the Democratic Party is breaking new ground in modern California politics by injecting itself into congressional and state legislative primary battles. A federal court decision last year freed both major parties to make primary endorsements when it upheld an earlier ruling that said state laws prohibiting the parties from endorsing in primaries violated the First Amendment right of free speech.

Despite the court ruling, the state Republican Party has decided not to enter the primary endorsement business, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Divisiveness Feared

"Endorsements tend to get divisive," Communications Director Joe Irvin said. "If we can maintain a level playing field among candidates in a primary and then close ranks behind the nominee, that gives us a boost in November."

This decision was recommended by a party task force and supported by a 3-1 margin in a survey of 3,000 party members and activists, Irvin said. The full party is expected to ratify the policy at the GOP spring convention this weekend.

The Democrats, in contrast, will kick off the nominating process for congressional and legislative races with 16 regional conventions Saturday and Sunday. Endorsement of candidates who receive at least 70% of the vote at one of these conventions will be ratified by the full party when its 1,900 delegates convene in Palm Springs in March. The U.S. Senate endorsement will also be decided at that time.

The Most Impact

Democratic analysts say the party's greatest impact would be felt if it endorsed a non-incumbent or an underdog, enhancing the candidate's credibility and boosting his or her fund-raising appeal. With few viable primary contests and even fewer open seats, however, this is expected to occur infrequently.

The party also plans to file suit next year to seek the right to endorse candidates in nonpartisan contests, such as city council and county supervisor elections, Kelly said.

He predicted that the ability to endorse in primaries will lead to "a sea-change in the balance of power in California politics" by making the heretofore weak parties "a much more influential part of the political process." This would shift clout from powerful lawmakers to party activists.

Premature Estimation

But there are signs that Kelly's assessment may be premature at best.

Both parties' major power brokers are still elected state and federal officials who garner large sums of money and channel it to candidates they support. Kelly said the state Democratic Party, which hopes to raise a relatively modest $2.5 million this year, will not contribute money to primary candidates it endorses.

Further, the party will not make an endorsement in the 1988 presidential primary, where it could have major impact. Such impartiality is necessary because the party oversees the presidential delegate selection process and wants to avoid negative fallout with the eventual nominee, Kelly said.

"Power not spent is power lost," said Democratic consultant Kam Kuwata. "If the party wanted to flex its muscles, what better way than to endorse a presidential candidate?"

Kuwata said that until the party proves it can deliver--money, volunteers or credibility--to a candidate, the value of its endorsement will remain uncertain.

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