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Enter: The Fat Lady

Why the Fight for California?

November 03, 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

What possessed Bob Dole to spend the last weeks of his presidential campaign running like a candidate for governor of California? Why did President Bill Clinton, comfortably ahead in the polls, schedule his 30th trip to the state on the eve of Tuesday's vote?

What's at stake goes well beyond the obvious prize of California's 54 electoral votes. On the line are dominance of a congressional delegation that makes up 12% of the House's membership and control of a Legislature that will implement new welfare and immigration reforms passed by Congress.

The state's 52-member congressional delegation is evenly divided--26 Republicans and 26 Democrats. About a dozen races on Tuesday's ballot could change that. U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is hoping for victories in California to buttress his GOP majority against possible losses elsewhere, particularly in the North and East. Democrats covet a possible gain of six seats in California, about one-third the number they need to retake control of the House.

What would it mean for California if the Democrats capture the congressional majority? An uptick in committee clout. When Republicans gained House control, California's share of committee chairs shrank from five to one. A recent analysis by PoliticsNow shows that a Democratic takeover could result in three more Californians getting chairs. In each case, a more liberal Democrat would replace a conservative Republican.

The stakes in state legislative races are similarly high. Democrats lost eight Assembly seats in 1994, with the Republicans taking control of the lower house for the first time in more than a quarter century. Tuesday's balloting will, in part, test whether the GOP's gains in the Assembly were a political aberration or the beginning of an electoral trend that could secure Republican control of the Legislature and the state's congressional delegation into the next century.

There is little chance that Democrats will lose their majority in the state Senate this Tuesday. But upper-house Republicans want to gain at least a seat or two, which would get them that much closer to a takeover of the chamber by the year 2000, when reapportionment begins. Some Democrats fear that if Republicans maintain their Assembly majority, the GOP can solidify its hold in 1998, when off-year elections and lower turnout tends to be kinder to Republicans. And that, too, could position them to control the 2000 reapportionment.

Tuesday's results, overall, could strengthen the role of the state Senate, as "youngsters" take over the Assembly from term-limited veterans. If the GOP holds onto control of the lower house, the Democratic Senate majority will continue to function as it did last session--a brake on Republican policy assaults on teachers' groups, labor unions, minorities and other Democratic constituencies.

This year, Republican hegemony in the Assembly appears threatened, partly because the GOP caucus initially campaigned on a hard-right "contract with California," which echoed Gingrich's "contract with America" and frightened state voters. Democrats branded the new conservative speaker, Curt Pringle, "Newt-lite." When Pringle first came to power, it seemed a fitting description of the Orange County Republican, who was widely dismissed as little more than a right-wing ideologue ill-equipped to manage legislative wars. But by session's end, he had learned a lesson or two about not emulating the House speaker and pulled back from what might have been a political disaster.

If the Republicans retain control of the Assembly, Pringle will return as speaker. But some Capitol observers wonder whether his newly acquired taste for compromise will sour when former Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte moves up to the state Senate. Brulte was credited with being the caucus' "master strategist" and a "facilitator" in legislative negotiations between the GOP and Democratic lawmakers. In Brulte's absence, will the arch-conservative wing of Pringle's caucus gain the upper hand?

Gov. Pete Wilson's desire for a bankable political legacy would certainly fare better in a Republican-led Assembly. To increase the odds of a friendly caucus, Wilson recently committed $800,000 of his campaign treasury to help GOP candidates in close Assembly races. Old-timers can't remember when a California governor made that kind of commitment with his own political bucks.

A Democratic triumph in the Assembly would bring about a dramatic shift in committee and legislative leadership. For example, conservative Republican Brett Granlund could be replaced as chair of the Health Committee by Democratic vice-chair Martin Gallegos, considered more consumer-friendly on health-care issues. Other possible changes include replacing current Judiciary chair Bill Morrow, a conservative Republican supported by Christian right and anti-abortion groups, with liberal Democrat Sheila Kuehl, a former law school professor and women's rights attorney.

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