SACRAMENTO — For suburban Republican legislators, the Mediterranean fruit fly infestation has turned into a political war of attrition and they are not winning.
That became apparent on Wednesday, a day after the state Assembly's Medfly hearing, as I spoke with politicians about how the aerial spraying was affecting election prospects.
I was especially interested in the Republicans.
The Medfly used to be the Grand Old Party's favorite pest. Former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's hesitation--wise, in retrospect--in nuking neighborhoods with malathion during the 1981 infestation helped knock him out of office. Republican Gov. George Deukmejian certainly hasn't held back the helicopters, but still he's taking heat. And so are Republican legislators from places under aerial assault, especially the solidly GOP suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley and northern Orange County.
The Deukmejian Administration believes that spraying, combined with the release of sterile fruit flies, eventually will drive out the Medfly. That may be. What's worrying the GOP politicians is that it is taking so long. "It needs to be like Panama or Grenada," said Sal Russo, a Republican political consultant. "You've got to get in fast and win it or else it's like Vietnam."
Duke's Vietnam? There was a hint of that in testimony at the Assembly hearing Wednesday by a UC Davis entomologist, James R. Carey, who said the Medfly might be in Southern California to stay. "If Carey is right," said Russo, "the effort is doomed from a political standpoint."
Gloom, if not doom, was the mood of two battle-zone GOP legislators, Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson of Fullerton and Assemblyman Pat Nolan, who represents Pasadena and Glendale.
As he answered questions about the Medfly during a breakfast at The Times Sacramento bureau, Johnson kept his voice so low that his words hardly were audible. It seemed as though he were hoping nobody would hear him talk about the pest.
Johnson's own neighborhood had been sprayed. His neighbors covered their cars, a defensive maneuver that the pro-Deukmejian Johnson disdained. But as Johnson talked, it became clear that he was unhappy at the Administration for placing him and his colleagues in a difficult situation.
The Department of Food and Agriculture, he said, "handled it very poorly" by not better articulating the need to spray. Health officials had not explained potential health risks. Legislators had not been warned of announcements that the helicopters would be coming to their districts.
Nolan is also upset. Although he supports the spraying, his constituents in Glendale and Pasadena are among the most militant opponents of spraying, and he has heard their complaints in recent weeks at more than a score of coffee klatches. Adding to his troubles is the fact that he's being investigated as part of the federal probe into alleged legislative corruption.
Fighting back, Nolan arranged a meeting between Deukmejian and angry Glendale and Pasadena officials, but nobody budged. Like Johnson, he believes the Administration has failed to explain its eradication policies. "I think the public has a legitimate gripe with state government," he said.
Given all this, there's bound to be an impact on Election Day, but it takes explaining.
Even though the Republican legislators from Medfly-infested districts face unhappy constituents, they're expected to win. That's because of the miracle of gerrymandering. Enough Republicans have been placed within their districts to assure victory. A possible exception to this is Nolan, with his investigative baggage.
The biggest concern among Republicans is the potential impact on the governor's race. For many years, the Republicans planning statewide campaigns have counted on the prosperous suburbs on the Los Angeles-Orange County border. As the suburbs have grown, so has their importance. GOP strategists automatically count on such places as La Habra Heights, Fullerton, West Covina and Arcadia--all under the flight paths of the malathion choppers.
The Medfly debate, should it drag on, endangers this arithmetic. Sen. Pete Wilson, the Republican candidate for governor, says he's sticking with the scientists who say malathion is safe. That pleases Republican Party financial contributors and voters in the Central Valley agricultural belt. It is not, however, likely to wash in the spray zone. And the region will be important to the Republicans if the election is tight.
Pete Wilson happily rode the Medfly to the Senate when he beat Brown in 1982. It would be one of the great ironies of politics if the Medfly rides him out of the governor's race this year.