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FIRST PERSON

Snapshots From the Campaign Roadshow

November 05, 1990|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Images along the campaign trail 1990: Shady tree-lined streets on a balmy Indian summer day in Chico . . . A quiet dusk in the peaceful old downtown square of San Jose . . . Three thousand enthusiastic middle-school students in Fontana waiting patiently for an hour and then cheering Dianne Feinstein, candidate for governor . . . An eager biology student standing aside so Pete Wilson could peer into the microscope and witness, too, the miracle of nature's micro-world.

With California now a nation-state of 30 million people, election campaigns are more disconnected from people than ever. Most of what passes for campaigning is candidates talking to batteries of television news cameras rather than to prospective voters.

Still, it was not much different 20 years ago when I first covered a California gubernatorial campaign full time. There were 20 million Californians then. Even with a near- constant autumn roadshow--from World Series to the end of daylight-saving time to Halloween--the candidates could see and communicate directly with only a fraction of the electorate.

The candidates still tour the state, but in bits and spurts and small caravans rather than the entourages that once barnstormed California.

This has been a commuter's campaign, traversing largely in little prop-jet airliners and twin-engine charters when it was not traveling the freeways--Feinstein often in a Jeep Wagoneer and Wilson in a black sedan trailed by staff and press vans.

On the road again, I found myself spending more time alone in my own car on the Los Angeles freeways than anywhere else, a Thomas Bros. map book in my lap. There were staged press conferences at places like a sewer outfall (to announce a water plan), at sheriffs' stations (to look and talk tough on drugs and gangs) and at schools statewide (to declare dedication to better education).

Still, over the last five months, I have managed to revisit much of California and to meet enough Californians to compile a mental scrapbook of new impressions of the state 20 years later.

Many came as no surprise: More people, more traffic on worse roads, more pollution, more crime and violence and more acres of California ripped up, filled in and leveled off for more houses, more malls and more industrial parks. There is more of almost everything except land and water. California's hills are always brown this time of year, but in 1990, the fourth year of drought, there is a depressingly parched look to the land.

Still, there is an amazing amount of open space left untouched by development in California, even not counting the vast stretches of national parks, forests and other protected public lands. Even along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, not every acre is plowed and groomed with grapevines, orchards or puffy white rows of cotton. Cattle graze quietly along the rolling hills. Now and then a dust plume rises as a solitary pickup heads home after shopping chores in town.

There is, in particular, one fine little valley that slices back into the hills along the north side of Interstate 80 between Vallejo and Richmond. By now, I had feared the housing developments would have invaded this valley and its untouched neighbors. Not so, at least so far.

The people of California have changed, of course. The population is more diverse ethnically and perhaps more fearful and suspicious of outsiders than in a more innocent period of California life, and less happy about the quality of life.

Even so, when I traveled to places such as Redding or Woodside or Los Banos, people exhibited a friendliness and hospitality that was more typical of Norman Rockwell's America. Want to use the bathroom? Why of course, it's just down the hall there. The telephone? Use it as long as you want. Would you like a soda or some coffee? So you came all the way from Los Angeles? My goodness, you have such an interesting job.

Two school visits stand out, in part because they tended to defy the stereotypes of an education system in chaos and a generation held captive by MTV and the Simpsons.

One school was in a brand-new island of suburbia--hundreds of look-alike homes set down amid the grime of the old Kaiser Steel complex just off the San Bernardino Freeway. One moment I was driving tentatively down a narrow two-lane road lined with warehouses and dodging 18-wheelers. The next, I was smack in the middle of the tract of homes so new the fragrance of raw lumber was still in the air. The American Dream of three bedrooms and a back yard in the suburbs was being realized all over again in ever-widening ripples beyond the Los Angeles megalopolis.

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