HUNTINGTON BEACH — The issue between the lieutenant governor candidates was once again abortion and in their first debate Wednesday incumbent Leo T. McCarthy challenged Republican Marian Bergeson to state her bottom line: Would she support the criminal prosecution of women who seek abortions?
Bergeson, who opposes legalized abortion, ducked the question even though McCarthy asked it three times--sometimes speaking over the moderator--and reporters pursued the issue further outside the studio where the debate was videotaped.
"I will support pro-life positions," Bergeson responded. Beyond that, she said, "This is a hypothetical. What are the (penalties)? The death penalty? Let's wait until we have the question."
Later in the afternoon, the state senator from Newport Beach called reporters to clarify her position saying, "I probably didn't make it very clear." If abortion were outlawed, Bergeson said she would oppose any criminal penalties for women seeking abortions and would instead favor civil fines against doctors who perform them.
"I have a great deal of empathy and concern for these women who have unwanted pregnancies," Bergeson said in a telephone interview. "In a sense, they're the victims and they should not be further penalized."
Abortion has been a difficult issue for Bergeson's campaign since she launched her bid for the lieutenant governor's office last year.
In the Republican primary, she faced abortion rights supporter Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim). In the general election, she faces another abortion rights advocate in McCarthy and she has had to downplay the difference between her position and that of Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson, also an abortion rights supporter.
Politically, Bergeson said she is "obviously on the wrong side of the issue." And she has been frustrated as it dominates her race because she does not believe it is a major part of the lieutenant governor's job.
"It's an issue that I don't think has ever been dealt with by the lieutenant governor's office," she said. "I think Leo McCarthy is running scared and he thinks he's got an issue that is politically popular."
McCarthy, however, opened his comments during the debate by noting that the lieutenant governor is responsible for breaking ties in the Legislature.
The debate was brief--just 30 minutes--and it included three minor-party candidates running for the same office. They are Clyde Kuhn of the Peace and Freedom Party; Merton D. Short of the American Independent Party and Anthony G. Bajada of the Libertarian Party.
The program was taped by Public Broadcasting System station KOCE-TV, which aired it in Orange County on Wednesday night. It was also sent to PBS stations statewide and was scheduled to be broadcast in all of the major California media markets.
Both sides said Wednesday that they are planning a second debate on a Los Angeles radio talk show scheduled for next Tuesday.
The candidates also argued over McCarthy's Safe Streets initiative--Proposition 133 on the November ballot--which would raise the sales tax by a half-cent to fund law enforcement, drug education and rehabilitation efforts.
Besides abortion, McCarthy said, "this is the next most important issue to me.
"The drug crimes in this state are phenomenal," he said. "Nobody was doing anything substantial about this in the Legislature so I proposed Proposition 133."
McCarthy said he has a strong record in the Legislature as a crime fighter, and his staff tried to back up the claim by passing out 11 pages of McCarthy's crime-related votes dating back more than 20 years. The incumbent also said every law enforcement group in the state has endorsed the initiative.
But Bergeson, who opposes the initiative, responded: "If you put a million dollars in front of anybody I think they'd support it."
She also accused McCarthy of using the initiative to cover up his soft crime record.
"He was defeated for the Senate in 1988 by Pete Wilson because of his poor crime record," she said. "I think this is not good legislation."
Bergeson said funding for the drug war should be a priority as state legislators prepare the budget, not funded through a sales tax that has a four-year sunset provision. She said some programs could be endangered if they became dependent on the sales tax and it was dropped after four years.
Bergeson attacked McCarthy right from the start. In her opening comments she said she is frequently asked what the lieutenant governor does, which she blamed on a lack of visibility by McCarthy. In 1988, Bergeson said, McCarthy missed every meeting of the four groups of which he is a member, including the state university board of directors and the University of California Board of Regents.
"Mr. McCarthy has been so busy running for U.S. Senate that he flunked the four major responsibilities of the lieutenant governor's office," she said.