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Two Grim Views of the Governor's Race

April 28, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK

From the sideline where she sits, Dianne Feinstein needs just two words to sum up the race for California governor. Asked what she thinks, the senator snorts, "Not much."

"The way campaigns have gone in California, there is nothing elevating or illuminating," she went on. "They become demolition derbies. And this campaign is looking like it's going to be a demolition derby in spades."

Feinstein, of course, forsook her front-runner status and decided at the last minute to skip the governor's race, giving up perhaps her last best shot at a job she's long coveted. Her seat in the U.S. Senate is no small consolation. Even so, Feinstein admits to second thoughts.

"You try to say, 'Well, I'll put it all behind me,' but it's not easy to do," Feinstein confessed. "It's hard all of a sudden when you're a bystander."

Still, each time the Senate slogs through another debate on the second-degree amendment to a substitute motion to recommit the concurrent resolution, Feinstein can succor herself with this thought: It's not her back getting perforated by all those arrows.


Leon Panetta thought about running for governor in the days after Feinstein stepped aside. The former White House chief of staff and veteran of eight terms in Congress--four years as the powerful head of the House Budget Committee--was arguably the best-qualified candidate of either party. Once you've ridden shotgun on the world's lone superpower, Sacramento seems eminently manageable.

"But I didn't want to spend 80% to 90% of my time just raising money," said Panetta, who reckoned he would have needed up to $30 million to compete in the governor's race--a calculation that may have been optimistic. Starting from scratch in February, that would have meant raising at least $1 million a week.

Panetta passed.

He shares Feinstein's dim view of the state of political discourse in the nation's biggest, richest and most important state as it bestrides a new century. He assesses the race for governor thus: "A lot of ads and a lot of consultants and pollsters working to develop those ads and not an awful lot with regard to the issues."

Being the ever-faithful Democrat--and making no bones of his aim to run for some future office--Panetta offers kind, if rote, words for all three of the Democrats running, businessman Al Checchi, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Torrance Rep. Jane Harman. He'd favor any, he said, over Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

Feinstein, however, won't make the ritual promise to back the Democrat, any Democrat, who wins the June 2 primary for the right to face Lungren in the fall. "I don't want to comment on that," she said.


California has big needs, Feinstein observed, notwithstanding the current economic boom. She cited education reform, a comprehensive new water policy, infrastructure requirements, growth management, disaster preparedness and on and on.

Panetta listed his own concerns, echoing Feinstein and adding a few more: welfare reform, race relations and overhauling the state's perversely convoluted budgeting process.

The four major candidates have addressed many of these issues, some with greater detail and more convincingly than others. For the most part, however, the governor's race has revolved around matters like who said what in which television advertisement and who, among the Democrats, may or may not be the one President Clinton loves best.

It is also true that noncandidates such as Feinstein and Panetta, precisely because they're not running, have the luxury to focus on issues without actually waging a campaign. Had Feinstein run for governor, she probably would have spent a good chunk of time--and millions of dollars--defending her record and votes in Congress, never mind her notions for improving California's drinking water.

Panetta, when he wasn't frantically chasing dollars, would have been forced to fend off attacks on his central role in Clinton's 1996 campaign, with its various fund-raising excesses, instead of spelling out his concept for multiyear budgeting.

Decrying the influence of money and the hegemony of pollsters and political consultants, Panetta lamented that increasingly, "you have to be either very wealthy or you have to be willing to sell your soul to run for office."

That may sound like sour grapes. But it seems strange and sad when those not running come across as so much more substantive and thoughtful than those who are.

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