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Here, It's the Legislature, Stupid!

September 01, 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

CHICAGO — 'In 1968," Jesse Jackson told the California delegation to last week's Democratic convention, "the issue was warfare. In 1996, the issue is welfare."

Both issues are divisive, emotional and politically dangerous for Democrats. But the California contingent's response to the hot-button concerns changed from Chicago, 1968, to Chicago, 1996. Today, the Democrats are fighting for the middle, not railing against it. That is critical to understanding the impact of last week's convention on California politics.

In 1968, the politics of the Vietnam War drove the delegation into dissension, disarray and defeat. The Democratic presidential ticket lost California and the election. The state party suffered bruising down-ballot defeats, losing control of the Assembly to Gov. Ronald Reagan and his legislative allies.

By contrast, this year's politics of welfare reform portend no real risk to party unity before the November elections.

The welfare legislation signed into law by President Bill Clinton last month is of special concern to California. The state has more welfare recipients than any other, and it is home to 40% of the country's legal-immigrant population. Cuts in food-stamp funding and aid to legal immigrants will thus hit California hard; the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates the state could lose about $6.8 billion over the next six years.

Cash-strapped Los Angeles County, a bastion of traditional Democratic constituencies, would be hardest hit. Costs to the county have been estimated at $236 million a year.

Nonetheless, state delegates and Democratic leaders have fallen grudgingly into line behind the president to accommodate his election-year move to the right on welfare. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) acknowledged the new law "stands to wreak havoc on the community," but she indicated she'll hold the heavy fire till after November and will work for Clinton's reelection.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina stood before the convention to explain, if not defend, Clinton's welfare compromise, expressing confidence that "he will fix the anti-immigrant provisions that Congress has tacked on."

Why the punch-pulling? First, nothing concentrates the mind like losing. In 1968, Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. In California, they had lost the governor's office two years earlier, but still ran the Legislature. Despite the fallout from the Vietnam debate, the Democrats figured they could retain enough clout to check GOP legislative excesses.

In 1994, the Republicans' takeover of both Congress and the powerful state Assembly, and their subsequent push to enact staunchly conservative policies, have scared state Democrats silly. That's why the usually fractious Democrats are, for the most part, rolling over on potentially divisive issues. They don't like being out of power.

That's why jockeying among potential candidates for governor, which normally preoccupies the California delegation, played a secondary role in Chicago. Sure, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and state Controller Kathleen Connell worked the delegation relentlessly. And buzz about possible runs by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta grew louder as the week progressed. But unlike 1992, when then-state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and former Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi sparred throughout the convention, gubernatorial maneuvering this year took a back seat to the politics of legislative control.

At every delegation meeting, state and national leaders hammered home the critical importance of protecting the Democrats' majority in the state Senate and winning back control of the Assembly. Assembly Minority Leader Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) described this goal as "the central focus" of the convention. "In California," he warned delegates, "[Assembly Speaker] Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) wants to do to you what [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich wants to do for the country." Indeed, a Martian dropping in on a California caucus might have concluded that the GOP opposition was, as one Democratic activist put it, "Pringle-hyphen-Gingrich," not Dole-Kemp.

California Democrats understand that how the new federal welfare law is implemented will depend on which party controls the Legislature. State lawmakers will write the enabling legislation. And Democrats are likely to differ with Republicans in their approach to issues central to the law's implementation, like federal block grants.

Gov. Pete Wilson has already begun to use provisions of the new law to trigger cuts mandated by Proposition 187, which denies state services to illegal immigrants. The initiative was passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 1994, but has been held up in the courts ever since. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that welfare won't get entangled in the initiative process, as voters react to the federal law and Sacramento's and the counties' responses to it.

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