SACRAMENTO — By backing candidates in two special Assembly elections, Gov. Pete Wilson had hoped to send a message to a Republican caucus that had been his biggest obstruction to resolving the state's huge budget deficit earlier this year.
But Tuesday night, voters in two geographically and politically distinct California communities sent a message to the governor--and it was decidedly mixed.
Wilson's handpicked candidate, Republican B. T. Collins, defeated a determined and much more conservative Republican, Barbara Alby, 47% to 38% in the 5th Assembly District, which reaches into the Sierra foothills from the Sacramento suburbs.
However, in Orange County's 67th Assembly District, the governor had quietly allied himself with the losing candidate. In a stunning upset, conservative activist Mickey Conroy beat Orange City Councilman William G. Steiner, a moderate in the Wilson mold, 43% to 37%.
Tuesday's special elections were, in effect, primaries. Because neither winner received more than 50% of the vote, they will face runoffs Sept. 17. But because both districts are considered safe for Republicans, and Collins and Conroy are expected to win the seats.
The conservative candidates in both races made this year's sharp increase in state taxes and fees--and Wilson's willingness to raise them--their central issue. And they were far outspent by their more centrist opponents, who drew on the same base of financial support--corporations and professional groups--that helped elect Wilson governor last year.
In looking at the results, the governor's office chose to emphasize the positive. "The voters are saying they want B. T. Collins to represent them in the Legislature and that is good news for B. T. Collins, the state Legislature and for the people in the 5th District, so we are happy," said Dan Schnur, the governor's deputy chief of communications.
On Conroy's upset victory, the response was predictably more muted. "Clearly there are ideological differences within the Republican party and it's in the best interests of the party for those differences to be resolved," Schnur said.
But conservatives are pleased with what they regard as a knock-out punch in Orange County and a fine performance by their underdog candidate in the Northern California race.
"I think Pete Wilson got his head handed to him," said Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), one of the Republicans who opposed the budget-balancing tax hikes that were enacted more than two weeks after the constitutional deadline--and only one week before Tuesday's election.
Conroy won "because he made the election a referendum on Wilson's tax increases," McClintock said.
McClintock was not even willing to give credit to Collins and Wilson for the victory in the 5th District, pointing out that Collins got fewer of the votes cast on Election Day than his anti-tax opponent and would have lost except for a big lead built up among absentee voters.
"In the 5th District, here was a candidate, B. T. Collins, a genuine war hero who lost an arm and a leg in Vietnam . . . and yet on Election Day, a majority of the people in the district voted against him," McClintock said.
Ray McNally, Collins' campaign consultant, said a strong grass-roots campaign and a last-minute burst of negative, inaccurate campaigning by Alby eroded Collins' lead in a crowded race that included eight Republicans and one Libertarian. "Despite it allT. scored a decisive victory over all of them," McNally said. Collins will face Libertarian David M. McCann, who received 3% of the vote Tuesday, in the September runoff.
Conroy's campaign manager, Mark Ferguson, attributed the upset Orange County victory to "a big grass-roots effort" for the activist whose claim to fame has been organizing a letter-writing campaign to oust Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hayden of Santa Monica because of Hayden's opposition to the Vietnam War. Ferguson agreed that there was a message to Wilson in the campaign: "The message is the people of California are tired of being taxed."
Steiner basically agreed. "There was an enormous amount of negative mail and negative expenditures against us primarily focused on the tax issue," he said
In the September runoff election, Conroy will face Democrat Gregory Robert Ramsay, who received 11% of the vote Tuesday. Wilson aides have said all along that whatever the outcome, the governor's goal was to involve himself in Republican primaries--not to challenge GOP incumbents but to pick candidates in races for open seats or to try to unseat Democrats.