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ON CALIFORNIA

The Week in Review, Pant Pant

October 30, 1994|PETER H. KING

Remember that long-ago time--about the middle of last month--when California politicians kept whining and moaning about competition from the O.J. Simpson case? The fear was that Californians would be so fixated on bloody gloves and 911 calls there'd be no brain room left for politics.

The threat this posed to the Bear Republic was almost unthinkable. Imagine citizens going to the polls without having paid close attention to those great instruments of modern democracy--political television commercials.

After the last week of political theater, the question of whether campaigns can compete with the Simpson whodunit seems to have been put to rest. Judge Lance A. Ito should take a vacation until after the election. This was a week that brought, among other items, Senate candidate Mike Huffington's amazing Zoe Baird problem, and a commercial that seemed to implicate Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren in the murder of Polly Klaas, and a suggestion from the governor, quickly retracted, that in post-Proposition 187 California all citizens will be required to carry identification cards.

For the politicos, it was a week of white knuckles and increasingly shrill name-calling and campaign themes rewritten on the fly, of strategies overtaken by events. Everything was moving fast. Polls seemed outdated almost upon release. Some notes on the weirdness:

*

First, to the Huff. He began the week ready to rally voters around his fresh endorsement of Proposition 187. He ended it admitting that he and his wife had kept an undocumented worker on their domestic staff. To be fair, Huffington made it clear he did not hire the baby-sitter. He said his wife did it.

Still, Huffington was big about it all: "As the head of my household, the buck stops with me." At their public confession, the Huffingtons came across as almost sympathetic figures before the cameras, especially when Arianna Huffington spoke of Marisela, the baby-sitter in question: "You cannot buy love for your children, and Marisela loves them to this day."

My guess is that their baby-sitting dilemma would have been forgiven and quickly forgotten by most card-carrying Californians--but for the rhetoric Huffington had brought days earlier to his endorsement of Proposition 187: "The hostility of this state toward illegal immigration," he had said, "has risen in direct proportion to the weakness of our political leaders to enforce immigration laws already on the books."

He said this, it's now clear, knowing full well that an illegal immigrant had baby-sat his children for five years. One wonders what he'll talk about in the remaining campaign days. Personal integrity? Leadership by example? The weather?

*

A new campaign commercial aired last week, and in a season in which the venom in political spots has become almost comic, a burlesque of deep voices and wild accusations, this one established a new standard for outrageousness. It shows an old man, with flowers, at the grave of a girl.

The old man is Joe Klaas. He is the grandfather of Polly Klass, the Petaluma 12-year-old whose abduction and murder by a paroled kidnaper galvanized the movement for a "three strikes" law. The ad was produced by the campaign of Tom Umberg, who is running for attorney general. It attempts to make the point that Polly might be alive today if the incumbent, Dan Lungren, had not cut funds for a statewide computer program. The details behind the allegation are complicated, disputed and, on the whole, irrelevant.

To suggest, as the ad clearly does, that the blood of Polly Klaas is on the hands of Dan Lungren is, as the attorney general said Friday in Santa Rosa, "absolutely abhorrent," and "despicable," and "the lowest, lowest campaign tactic ever" and "disgusting."

But he understates the point.

*

Pete Wilson's staff spent the latter part of the week putting out a big fire. The San Francisco Chronicle had asked the governor if, should Proposition 187 pass, all Californians would be required to carry a card to prove they are legal residents. After a lengthy preamble, the governor answered "yes."

The subsequent story caused instant discomfort among those who consider such a card as basically un-American. Comparisons were made to the yellow armbands of Nazi Germany. Myself, I recalled all the times I had lost my laminated gym card over the years. Of course, my skin is not brown.

Happily, the governor's firefighters moved fast the next day to extinguish the controversy. The governor, a spokesman spoke, "did not, is not and has never proposed--nor does he envision--that all Californians must 'carry' a new identification card if Proposition 187 passes."

Interesting, the word all in that denial, no?

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