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The GOP Assembly Gang That Shoots Straight--and Misses

February 11, 1996|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

If Hollywood turned the first weeks of real Republican control of the state Assembly into a movie, it might produce a remake of "The Lost Weekend." That, as film critic Pauline Kael described it, was a movie about a "frustrated, dipsomaniacal writer who goes on a five-day binge that lands him in Bellevue."

Assembly Republicans, out of power for a quarter century, quickly flexed their new muscle and pumped out a spate of socially divisive bills. But their pursuit of the agenda embodied in their legislation could land them if not in Bellevue, then back in the minority. Consider.

Polls show that education is a major concern of Californians. Voters want to confront school funding, control and choice. But the first education-related bill spotlighted by the GOP-controlled Assembly was: paddling.

Polls show that Californians generally support gun control. But the GOP-con-trolled Assembly narrowly passed a bill making it easier for most adults to carry a concealed weapon.

The charged debate over these and other bills, including one to prohibit California from recognizing single-sex marriages, monopolized the attention of state and national media at the expense of more mainstream GOP concerns like crime, taxes, welfare and tort reform.

The Assembly GOP caucus should have heeded the warning signs coming out of Washington. In the heady, early days of the Republican revolution, Speaker Newt Gingrich and his new GOP House majority skirted divisive social issues. Instead, they dealt with government reform, anti-crime legislation and economic programs that enjoyed broad public support and behind which congressional Republicans could unite. Polls indicated the public approved.

Then congressional conservatives shifted focus. Measures to weaken gun control, curb abortion and cut Medicare and other government services frightened voters and strained GOP unity. In the budget battle, House Republicans came off as obstreperous; their shut-down-the-government tactics seemed extreme. Public support for the GOP agenda and Gingrich collapsed. Opinion polls swung back in favor of congressional Democrats.

Assembly Republicans know their social legislation has slim chance of surviving the Democratic-controlled state Senate. And cooler heads among them realize that such shortsighted maneuvering in pursuit of ideological purity could put GOP legislators, especially moderates, in a dangerously weak political position, though their fund-raising edge over the Democrats could help blunt that danger. Congressional Republicans find themselves in a similar situation: Their money advantage may not be enough to offset voter impatience with the pace of promised change.

Still, things could get worse. The Assembly's hard-right tilt could put GOP legislators on course for a series of embarrassing head-ons with Gov. Pete Wilson. Four years ago, a Democratic Legislature passed, and Wilson signed, California's compulsory motorcycle-helmet law. The new GOP-controlled Assembly, with the help of a couple of moderate Democrats facing tough races in marginal districts, voted to repeal it despite a probable Wilson veto.

More serious, perhaps, is the political fallout from the GOP's internecine warfare over abortion. In the Legislature, these divisions usually surface when state funding of abortions is debated during budget deliberations. Wilson, who is pro-abortion rights, continues to include Medi-Cal funding for abortions in his budget, contending that court decisions require him to do so. Democrats generally support him and have managed to marginalize Republican conservatives who threatened to hold up the state budget over such funding. Now, GOP legislators who oppose abortion hold key positions on Assembly fiscal committees and play leadership roles in both houses. They are no longer marginal.

Every Hollywood production needs a soundtrack. For the Assembly GOP's legislative assault, it was the Beatles' "Revolution" blasting from a boom-box provided by conservative lawmaker Larry Bowler (R-Elk Grove). Santa Monica Democrat Sheila J. Kuehl, eyeing the giddy Republicans, slyly retorted, "If you play it backward, it says, "Watch out for Nov. 5."

Indeed, in defining a clear choice in policy direction, Assembly Republicans take a significant political risk. A lurch too far to the right could hurt them in November. But their revolution may also force this year's legislative elections out of the shadow of the national campaigns and into the daylight of a referendum on state priorities.

Political parties might actually stand for something. Voters might be able to discern what that something is and cast their votes after some real debate on issues and ideology. That could give Californians the rare opportunity--and direct responsibility--for restructuring the scope and direction of state government into the 21st century.

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