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Term-Limit Fight Invokes California as the Bogyman : Politics: Washington state incumbents fan fears of water grab by arid neighbor. The tactic may be working.

November 05, 1991|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — Washington state voters, pick your devil: Is it the scoundrels in the Congress? Or the water grabbers from California?

In the closing hours of the campaign here to impose America's strictest term limits on public officials, the widely ballyhooed anger of voters with politicians has been splashed with fear--the parochial fear of being overpowered by Californians. And, as a result, pundits here say that the term limits measure--once a sure thing--may now be in some doubt.

What voters here are being told over and over again, by everyone from local newspaper editors to U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. Foley of Spokane, is that Initiative 553 is a ploy, a Trojan Horse, of powerful interests who want to strip this state of its clout in Congress and then plunder its natural resources. Mostly, the guilty interests are described as generic Californians.

Consider this paragraph from a Sunday Seattle Times news story about Foley on the campaign stump:

"On several occasions, Foley raised the specter of Washington state becoming California's slave if Washington were to lose the advantages it's gained through seniority." Under the proposal, the 14-term Foley would be allowed to serve only one final two-year stint, beginning in 1993.

Or this from a radio advertisment: "Term limits would give congressmen from Los Angeles the power to divert our water to California . . . ."

And this from an editorial column by Seattle Times Associate Editor Richard W. Larsen: "The cynical California forces behind 553 . . . could thus gain enormous influence in Congress and, with Washington weakened, would be in a position to--at last, after years of trying--grab Columbia River water and Northwest power . . . ."

California-bashing is a lively and usually harmless subtext to life in the Northwest, with Golden State migrants denounced for driving up housing prices and blamed for spreading congestion and tension throughout the good land. Often, the loudest bashers are themselves expatriate Californians.

Never, though, has the phenomenon become quite this breathless or quite so much an expression of the view of Washington's civic and political Establishment, according to many longtime civics watchers.

"I'll tell you why they're doing it," said Seattle political commentator Walt Crowley. "It's the only thing that even remotely begins to move voters off a 70% majority in favor of term limits. And I'll add to that: It's working. Support for 553 is softening palpably."

Indeed, until the No-on-553 campaign found its anti-California voice in the last few days, the election promised to be just another bright flicker in the national bonfire of dissatisfaction with Congress and with the course of American politics in general. The measure promised an outlet for frustration over everything from the national debt to the savings and loan scandals.

As evidence of the California-is-out-to-get-us theory, Foley and the anti-553 campaigners noted that former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. has spent several days in the area campaigning for the measure. And, on Monday, they observed, associates of former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, a leader of the term limits movement in California, were in Seattle on behalf of the proposition.

"It's wonderfully ironic that a former governor of California would favor term limits for Washington's members of Congress. California has not limited terms for its congressmen, only for its legislators," Foley declared.

Brown said it was a "fraud" for incumbents to try to divert attention by appealing to fears of a nonexistent water grab. "It's plain as day the Democratic Party and the country need new blood and new ideas, and term limits is one way to get them," he said.

A great number of Washingtonians, from Foley on down, take as a given that drought-stricken California will eventually have to look to the far Northwest to satisfy its water needs. Events like the Oakland Hills fire are sometimes depicted in Seattle as evidence of near desperate conditions in California.

In recent years, the only specific proposal in this regard came from Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. Last year, he proposed digging canals from the Columbia and Snake Rivers to California--a suggestion that was regarded as silly and barely noted in California, but which garnered Page 1 headlines here.

"It's a ridiculous lie to bring forth the California bogyman," said Initiative 553 spokesman John Burrick. But still, he conceded, the tactic was working. "We knew the House Speaker would fight. But I'll say this: If we pass it here, in the House Speaker's state, no incumbent in this country will be safe."

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