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CALLING IT AS THEY SEE IT : When results don't live up to expectations, perception is reality. : California: The state is in trouble.

November 04, 1990|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

Stardate: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 1990. California will go--perhaps--where few states have gone before.

As we mark the beginning of a new political decade, one thing is sure. This election, more than any other in the last decade, is a referendum on government.

It is the logical outgrowth of what went wrong with California politics in the 1980s, when the Me Decade flourished in Sacramento. It began with the brutal 1979-80 speakership battle that left the Assembly polarized and escalated the campaign-financing arms race.

Policy took a back seat to political survival. The lessons learned: Grab what power you can; hold on to it by any means available, and better not use it at all than trust anybody else to exercise it for you. Not an auspicious beginning.

Things worsened in the aftermath of the 1982 election, when Californians elected a Republican governor, George Deukmejian, and a Democratically controlled Legislature. Weak leadership couldn't--or wouldn't--overcome the natural tension inherent in the democratic system of checks and balances. Divided government didn't make leadership any easier.

Critics condemned the policy deadlock resulting from Sacramento's lack of action and surfeit of partisan bickering over such major policy issues as insurance reform, health care, education and the state budget. Once the affliction had a name, all that the voters demanded was a cure.

That helped get us where we are today--in the middle of a pivotal debate over the direction Californians want their government to take.

What kind of government will face the complex problems of the next decade? Do Californians want to give their leaders more power or less? Do voters want more services or fewer? Are they willing to pay for programs? How do they want them funded--if at all? These are the questions on Tuesday's ballot.

Leave aside the obvious question inherent in the governor's contest: Is the nation's largest state going to elect a woman governor? That reflects a horse race, not a referendum. But it is appropriate to ask: Where might Democrat Dianne Feinstein or Republican Pete Wilson lead the state?

Policy differences between the two candidates are mostly a matter of degree. Both have gone through the campaign as pro-choice, pro-environment and pro-death penalty.

Each will take a more activist approach to government than did Deukmejian. Neither has put both feet in concrete over raising taxes.

Yet it is naive to think that a vote for governor is merely a choice between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.

Look at Proposition 128--Big Green. Feinstein has endorsed it. Wilson opposes it. Should that initiative pass and survive the inevitable court tests that await it, the next administration will be responsible for its implementation. How might each candidate approach that job?

In government, policy implementation is policy-making. A chief executive committed to a program is likely to push it into reality more quickly and to define its charge more rigorously. One who is not may slow its implementation and work to dilute its impact.

A recent object lesson is Deukmejian's "cautious"--some critics say "laggard"--approach to implementing Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative he opposed, which passed in 1986.

Look at reapportionment. Which political party will dominate redistricting after the 1990 census depends, to some extent, on the outcome of the gubernatorial election.

History tells us that when one party controls the process of drawing new district lines--as will be the case if Democrat Feinstein wins and the Legislature remains Democratically controlled--the minority party tends to get its butt kicked. (That's the technical term for a reapportionment that tends to favor disproportionately the other party.)

If Wilson becomes governor, his veto threat will supply a Republican brake on the creativity of the likely Democratic majority. With the possibility of seven additional California congressional seats, that has implications for the direction of public policy on both the state and national levels.

Will it be the Democrats who add to their legislative majorities, enhancing support for a liberal social agenda? Or will Republicans increase their representation and define a more conservative approach to public policy?

Look at gubernatorial appointments. Every appointee brings a world view--and most likely one close to the governor's--to his or her job responsibilities. How will each administration reflect the diversity of California?

Judging from the people who have surrounded the candidates over the years, one may see a greater number of minorities and women in a Feinstein administration and a disproportionate percentage of white males in Wilson's.

Both candidates understand the political necessity of reaching out to various voter groups for appointments, although neither has made it clear whether those appointments will reach to the highest levels of power.

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