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California and the West

Among Voters, Contentment Is Subject to Change

Politics: The economy may be strong, but as a certain amount of grouchiness in the town of Hemet indicates, incumbents may not be as safe as they think.

April 19, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HEMET — The breakfast crowd was discussing politics at the Bostonia Chinese American restaurant--a down-home spot on the main drag of this rural community in Riverside County.

If any politicians had been present, their ears would have been crimson.

The pollsters tell us that Californians are feeling less grouchy now that the economy is improving, and that this is good news for political incumbents. Could be, but residents here, and presumably elsewhere, still have a load of grievances against government at all levels. Woe betide the politician, incumbent or would-be, who is not attuned to that fact.

"Government cares more about rats than it does about people," said Mike Andrews, 44, a self-employed handyman, a reference to the protection afforded the kangaroo rat by the Endangered Species Act, which has thwarted the building plans of numerous Hemet property owners.

"Whatever happened to all that money the lottery was supposed to provide for schools?" asked Gary Turnbull, 52, an industrial electrician. "They keep changing the lottery, and the schools are still in bad shape."

And so it went as diners sounded off over biscuits smothered in homemade gravy with bacon or sausage ($2.95 on the "light side" menu).

"Government should leave the Indians alone out at their casinos," said Jean Bissonette, 52, a mobile home service technician. "As long as there isn't corruption, the government should butt out of the casinos."

"They let people stay on welfare too long, and too many of them are told to move here because the rents are cheap," said Peggy Shaughnessy, 42, a grocery clerk. "It's not fair to those of us who work."

Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said the folks at Bostonia were just engaging in that thoroughly American, particularly post-Watergate practice of bashing politicians.

"Cynicism about government is part of our culture," Cain said. And he warned that the optimistic mood found by pollsters could turn into "Throw the bums out!" by November.

All it might take is an economic down tick, a national or international crisis--or even an innovative political slogan, he said, noting that Newt Gingrich's "contract with America," credited with leading the 1994 "Republican revolution," was not unveiled until September of that year.

"The public's optimism is very fragile," Cain said.

On a midweek night in his race for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, millionaire car alarm manufacturer Darrell Issa had driven the 50 miles from his home in Vista in northern San Diego County to talk to a dinnertime gathering of the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Republican Women Federated.

Issa has figured that his best bet in his fight with state Treasurer Matt Fong for the nomination is to stress his anti-government views and his outsider status. And what better place than Hemet (population 57,000), a Republican stronghold?

Talking to 35 women and half a dozen men at the Anchor restaurant at the far end of Florida Avenue from the Bostonia, Issa laid it on thick.

He promised to introduce a bill to end pensions for legislators. He jibed that Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer "never met a tax she didn't like." He had a put-down for a favorite target of Republicans: "I'm not going there [Washington] for the chance to party with Teddy Kennedy."

Issa eschewed a chance to display modesty when asked about his "passion" for America. "I don't want to be self-effacing because it doesn't become any politician," he said.

Not one to linger and glad-hand, Issa spoke, answered questions and left. He was gone when Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa) warned the gathering that his fellow conservatives should not be lulled into slowing the fight against taxes, regulations and big government.

"This is a time when taxpayers and citizens are complacent," Granlund said. "There is not much interest in what is happening in Sacramento and Washington. We need a rallying cry to get conservatives energized."

Later in the evening, members of the audience were asked to list their concerns in this election year. Among them: Social Security, Medicare, HMO restrictions, the presence of a high number of prison parolees in Hemet, the fight for federal money to realign California 79 and a disturbing sense that the country is in decline.

"The moral climate of this country is going downhill fast," said Byron Denholm, 66, a veterinarian. "The president should be a moral leader, but he isn't. And Barbara Boxer supports him."

Although Hemet has enjoyed some economic boost--new Target, Home Depot and Staples stores, and a payroll boost from construction of a reservoir west of town--the recovery has not been complete. Nervousness about the economy lingers.

"We keep hearing about this wonderful economy, but half our buildings are still empty," said Aileen Lang, 60ish, the club president. "We keep scratching our heads and asking: 'Where is it?' "

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