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Decision '94 / SPECIAL GUIDE TO CALIFORNIA'S ELECTIONS : Finding a Cure in a Year of Anger

October 30, 1994|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

If 1992 was the Year of the Woman, 1994 might be the Year of Anger in California politics. Anger over crime and illegal immigration. Anger at incumbent politicians. Anger at the system itself.

Something's going on out there. The pollsters and other experts aren't sure exactly what it is, or how it will manifest itself at the polls on Election Day, Nov. 8. But voter frustration is boiling over.

Indeed, when The Times invited a group of undecided voters to talk about the elections, this is what they thought about politicians: One said, "I personally do not believe they give a damn." Another commented, "Fire them, like you'd fire anybody else." A third said, "Somewhere, somehow, the whole system has fermented and become corrupt."

There is no doubt, as well, that the primary lightning rod in California this year is illegal immigration, and most specifically, the cost of providing services such as health care and education to those who are in California without benefit of U.S. citizenship or some other form of legal status.

Once or twice every generation in California, an issue builds up such momentum that it tends to overshadow an entire election. The success or failure of candidates may rest on how they deal with the issue--support it, oppose it or, often the most fateful choice of all, try to ride it down the middle.

Such was the case in the mid-1960s with the state open housing law and in 1978 with Proposition 13, the so-called Property Tax Revolt. This year, it is Proposition 187, the initiative to deny state services other than emergency medical care to anyone who is in California illegally.

Early polls gave the measure a seemingly overwhelming lead. As the debate intensified and enveloped candidates at every level, the gap narrowed. But even if it fails to pass, the passions over illegal immigration will continue to influence California politics.

Other currents are swirling around California's campaign season, including a supposed Republican surge nationally.

Will 1994 be the year of the anti-politician? Will California voters rise up and smite incumbents?

"It's scary out there," said a longtime California campaign manager. His voice was etched with weary anxiety as his arm gestured symbolically toward a vast, unseen California voting populace.

Much depends on who actually turns out to vote this year. Will huge numbers of those who are disenchanted with the political situation feel strongly enough to go to the polls to register their protest? Or will they show their disdain for the system simply by staying home on Election Day?

The election of 1994 will determine to a considerable degree what the state's governance will be going into the 21st Century.

Nationally, this is an "off-year" election because the presidency is not at stake. But this is the "on-year" for the state as Californians choose their governor and other ranking statewide officials, a U.S. senator, 52 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 100 of the 120 members of the Legislature, and decide on 10 statewide ballot measures.

For legislators in office when term limits passed in 1990, this will be the last run for their current seats. Already, a large number of lawmakers have left the Legislature to run for higher office this year or pursue other career paths.

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An unusual twist to this campaign is that the contest for the U.S. Senate is drawing as much attention as the contest for governor. This is primarily because of the challenge of freshman Rep. Mike Huffington, a virtually unknown Santa Barbara Republican, to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Going into the campaign, Feinstein was one of the state's most popular politicians and a heavy favorite to win. But Huffington plunged $20 million or more of his personal fortune into the contest, and tapping into the widespread anger toward incumbents, made it a nationally watched battle.

A victory by Gov. Wilson over Democrat Kathleen Brown, after his governorship sank to record lows in popularity just two years ago, could put Wilson in the middle of speculation about a possible spot on the 1996 national ticket. A Brown victory would do the same for her in regard to the first presidential election of the new century, in the year 2000.

Once again California has become a national laboratory for initiatives. Passage of Proposition 187 could trigger movements in other states to end public services for illegal immigrants.

Other controversial ballot measures have been largely overshadowed by the strong interest in Proposition 187. Proposition 186 would totally overhaul the health care system in the state, replacing it with a state-administered "single-payer" plan. And Proposition 188, sponsored by tobacco interests, would preempt all local smoking control ordinances in California and replace them with a milder statewide standard.

Before the tea leaves from the 1994 vote returns are fully analyzed and scattered by the winds, the 1996 presidential sweepstakes will be under way. With a March presidential primary, California may play a more pivotal role in the nomination process than it has in decades.

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