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Wilson May Get His Dream Legislature : Primary: A more moderate and compliant Assembly may be the happy result of some right-wing victories and pro-choice GOP women.

June 07, 1992|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

After Tuesday's primary, Pete Wilson is no better off politically than he was when he began his crusade to change the face of the state Legislature. At least not yet.

The governor has gambled big. He bet he could leverage a Republican-leaning reapportionment plan out of the courts. He got his desired political map. Along the way, he also won the undying enmity of the legislative leadership and other incumbents whose votes he needs.

Still, visions of a GOP majority in the Assembly were irresistible. But it meant another gamble. Wilson had to recruit strong candidates to run--and win--in GOP primaries. Success would give them a chance to take new, more competitive legislative districts in the fall.

Somewhat belatedly, Wilson endorsed 19 GOP candidates. Eight were incumbents, three unopposed. Low risk here.

But some were pitted against the Religious Right, whose candidates, if victorious, would destroy Wilson's legislative strategy.

Did this gamble pay off? It depends on who's counting, and how you count.

Three of the six Assembly candidates on the California Abortion Rights Action League's pre-primary "Enemies of Choice" list were defeated. They were all running against Wilson-endorsed contenders. Good news for the governor.

But right-wingers, endorsed by Assembly Republicans who dislike Wilson's agenda, won significant victories. They have a good chance of capturing GOP-leaning seats in November.

In the end, Wilson's batting average in four critical San Diego skirmishes with the Religious Right was .500. That's fine for baseball, but not for an incumbent governor on his home turf. And it won't help him control his legislative agenda. He's made enemies in his own party and some of them are going to Sacramento.

What this all means for Wilson is complicated by two, sometimes conflicting, policy goals. He wants to be an activist governor, and right-wingers stand in the way.

Wilson also is determined to protect business. To do that, he'll need conservatives, until the effects of redistricting and the suburbanization of Democratic districts can increase the number of moderate Republicans and pro-business Democrats. What's a governor to do?

The dirty little secret is that what happened in June may mean a more moderate GOP Assembly caucus down the line. In several November races, the conservative GOP candidates are weak or out of step with their district, leaving the Democrats an opening to exploit.

The 53rd Assembly District is a good example. Brad Parton, the conservative, anti-abortion rights winner in the GOP primary, will face a pro-abortion-rights Democrat, Debra Bowen, in a district that is pro-choice by 2-1. Would Wilson, who's been hard-pressed to round up a two-thirds vote on the budget, be better off with a moderate Democrat or a hard-line conservative?

Wilson did save a couple of his moderate Assembly allies from right-wing challenges in the primaries, while a couple of hard-core conservatives left the Assembly to run for Congress. That could lead to a more homogeneous and compliant GOP caucus. And by 1996, the effects of term limits and redistricting should fully kick in, giving Wilson a real shot at a Legislature in his own image.

Just how realistic Wilson's plan is will depend, in part, on how the U.S. Senate races play out. There are two theories on how the GOP primary choices of a moderate, John Seymour, and a conservative, Bruce Herschensohn, will affect the distribution of power in Sacramento.

The Herschensohn candidacy, according to one, gives conservative Republicans a reason to vote, and they'll stick around to support the entire party ticket. That's good for Seymour and for GOP candidates for lower offices.

The other theory is that pro-choice GOP women, out-gunned in June by blistering right-wing campaigns and a high conservative turnout, will vote for Democrat Barbara Boxer rather than Herschensohn. Then they'll embrace Seymour, who is running against Democrat Dianne Feinstein, as a "conscience-assuaging" vote.

This could help Wilson and his moderates. But that only happens if these Republican women turn out. They are described as "devastated" by the weak showing of women candidates in GOP primaries and are frustrated over what one activist described as a "Wilson wing" that is "disenchanted, apathetic and not paying attention." They could stay home.

Then there is the Ross Perot factor. If Perot is strong in the fall and the fervor for him trickles down the ticket to the legislative races, how will that change Wilson's odds?

If independence is a hallmark, that could hurt pro-Wilson candidates--not only incumbents but challengers who may inherit an Establishment aura because of a Wilson endorsement. It's not inconceivable that candidates will be running away from a Wilson endorsement and pledging fealty to the "Do it yourself" mantra of Perotism. Once in Sacramento, they might not pay much attention to the niceties of party loyalty or to the governor's policy initiatives.

And, of course, there is money. Estimates are that Wilson put $600,000 or more into the legislative primaries. He'll have to spend more this fall, not only on candidate races but on his welfare reform initiative, should it qualify.

The June elections were the first in the wake of a reapportionment that was supposed to moderate the impact of ideology. And yet, on the Republican side, the campaigns were among the most nasty and brutal holy wars waged. (On the Democratic side, the battles were more about style than ideology.)

What it basically adds up to is that the calculus of California politics isn't easy and it's inherently unstable. On to November! If you can stand the suspense.

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