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Partisan Feud Will Shape Bergeson's Fate

April 22, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Sen. Marian Bergeson's battle against Assembly Speaker Willie Brown to become state schools superintendent is about over. And the loser is looking like Gov. Pete Wilson.

Brown has said he will call for an Assembly floor vote today on Wilson's nomination of Republican Bergeson to replace Democrat Bill Honig, convicted of conflict of interest for shifting public tax dollars to his wife's company.

And for most of the moderate, swing-vote Democrats Bergeson must win over in order to keep her nomination alive, the question simply has come down to this: Where is the greatest political advantage, siding with the Speaker or with the governor?

There are two parts to the answer: How might voters back home react to a legislator emulating the controversial Brown and rejecting the respected Orange County lawmaker, who would be the first woman ever to hold the job? And which man, Brown or Wilson, can do the most for--or to--the legislator?

"That one we lose," concedes a Wilson adviser, referring to the ability of the Speaker to reward or punish an Assembly member.


Bergeson needs 41 votes to survive the Assembly and move the fight to the more friendly atmosphere of her own house. She likely would be confirmed by the Senate, especially since one of the Democrats there--Sen. Gary K. Hart of Santa Barbara--announced Monday that he has abandoned his early campaign to be elected schools chief next year.

But in the Assembly, Bergeson is assured only the 31 votes of Republicans. So she needs at least 10 commitments from the 47 Democrats--plus one or two more for insurance. As of Wednesday, it appeared she had garnered only four to eight.

Wilson's unpopularity among voters cripples his ability to drum up public support on Bergeson's behalf, and his doubtful political future makes him a lame duck in legislators' eyes.

Nonetheless, Wilson still will occupy the Capitol's corner office for at least another 20 months, during which time he can sign or veto bills and make appointments pleasing to cooperative legislators. So the governor has invited in roughly a dozen Democrats from "marginal" districts--where the electorate is basically bipartisan and can swing to either party depending upon the candidate--to talk politics candidly one-on-one.

Meanwhile, his political operatives have been applying pressure by targeting the legislators' districts with mail and their offices with phone calls.

Wilson has been reminding these Democrats that even before Bergeson was nominated, Brown had declared he would oppose any Republican. And the governor has asserted, according to an adviser, that the vulnerable lawmakers "can't afford to be tarred with such blatant partisanship in their districts. . . . There are times when it's important to show independence from Willie."

And, of course, there is subtle talk of mutual back-scratching. "The governor points out that he's worked before with Democrats on things that are important to them--and he's willing to do it again if they'll work with him," says the adviser.

Almost parenthetically, Wilson notes that nobody really is questioning the qualifications of Bergeson, 67, a former teacher, school board member and president of the California School Boards Assn.


Brown's operatives also have been busy mailing and phoning influential Democratic allies--including teachers and minority groups--in an effort to block the nomination. "Willie has made it clear he wants her beaten," says a strategist.

The Speaker seems to have several motives, including a strong dislike for Wilson. The feeling is mutual for the governor. And neither has attempted to horse trade on this.

With Democrats on a roll in California, Brown sees no point in handing over the highly visible schools office to a Republican. Keeping it in the hands of a nonpolitical caretaker deputy until after the 1994 election would, in effect, maintain him as the education kingpin in the Capitol. And, make no mistake, if it were not for the Speaker's tenacious defense of education funding the last two years, elementary and high schools today would be receiving significantly fewer dollars from Sacramento.

Keeping the office vacant also would allow a Brown protege, Chairman Delaine Eastin (D-Fremont) of the Assembly Education Committee, to run for the job next year without facing an incumbent.

Yes, there are some disagreements with Bergeson's past positions. But these are mere rationales, excuses. This battle is all about partisan politics.

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