Behind the swirling campaign fog and the advertising claptrap, the 1990 California elections hold this piquant question: Is now time for change?
Candidates from the heated governor's race on down dwell on the theme; ballot propositions promise it. And on Tuesday, in the first round of this year's balloting, the choice goes to voters. They have the opportunity to significantly alter the state of the state, to put the strop to the legendary cutting edge of California.
Or, just as important, they hold the power to ratify the status quo, thank you.
Either way, the California elections seem destined to give definition to this new decade of the 1990s, here and across the nation.
As usual in a primary election, the most telling votes will come on ballot propositions.
Will voters accede to a big tax increase and a vast new highway building program and thereby signal the beginning of the end of the era of Ronald Reagan and Proposition 13? Or is the mood still anti-tax, anti-government and anti-growth?
Proposition 111 on the June 5 ballot, the gasoline tax and spending limit, will provide an answer.
Then, will voters toss out California's elaborate and unique criminal court procedures in the belief that a Plain Jane system modeled after the federal courts will re-balance the scales of justice? Proposition 115, popularly known as the "crime victims' initiative," will tell.
Will voters finally strip the Legislature of its longstanding and perpetually controversial power to draw district lines and shape partisan control of the Assembly, the state Senate and California's ever-growing delegation to the House of Representatives? Proposition 119, and to a lesser degree Proposition 118, will answer.
At the same time, will voters approve tough ethical standards for state officials--in return for an independent pay commission designed to boost their salaries? Proposition 112, the Legislature's ethics-for-pay measure, will decide.
And then there are the candidates.
One of the most tantalizing questions this election is whether Democrats will make history and choose a woman as their nominee for governor. Dianne Feinstein comes down to the wire as the favorite over John K. Van de Kamp, after a long and lackluster campaign in which gender loomed large.
In fact, the whole question of the improving electoral prospects for women just may, in the end, emerge as the lasting story of the 1990 campaign.
Beginning with the primary Tuesday and then the general election Nov. 6, it is possible, for the first time, for Californians to elect women to more than half of the top jobs in state government. In addition to governor, there are strong contenders for the offices of lieutenant governor, treasurer and secretary of state.
In this primary, there are six credible women running for statewide constitutional office--representing both parties, all variety of ideology and divergent views on feminist issues such as abortion.
The Republicans fielded state Sen. Marion Bergeson in the race for lieutenant governor against fellow Orange County Sen. John Seymour.
Another Republican, former U.S. Treasurer Angela (Bay) Buchanan, seeks to replace incumbent Treasurer Tom Hayes as the party nominee in the fall. The winner will face one of the most talked-about women in the 1990 elections, Democrat Kathleen Brown, sister of former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. and the daughter of former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr.
Finally, Democratic Secretary of State March Fong Eu, the ranking woman in California politics, seeks a fifth term. And among the Republicans seeking the nomination to oppose her is Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores.
"The winds of change are blowing," Feinstein is fond of saying.
The former two-term mayor of San Francisco began her historic campaign rather ambivalently. A wealthy, active and fun-loving woman, she had plenty of doubters. Did she really have the stomach for the demands and knocks of the campaign trail? Even she wondered.
But step by step, she convinced herself and most everyone else of her determination. She and husband Richard Blum lavishly spent their own money on her campaign. She turned around the polls. And maybe most important, she proved that her personality fits television the way fur fits the mink.
She had to cut corners to do it, however. She had virtually no political organization. Her adviser on issues was a part-time loaner from Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr.
Her platform often made her sound like she was running for federal mediator, not for governor. Got a problem? Water allocation? Business development? Race relations? A state budget awash in red ink? Unaffordable insurance? She offered one universal bromide: She would get people around a table and make them negotiate.
Her real message was airier.
"What this race is all about is a change in values," Feinstein said. " . . . The '90s will be a decade of enormous change."