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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Checchi's Talk Hands Lungren Ammunition

March 26, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Political candidates at party conventions can sound like drunks in a friendly bar, shooting off their mouths and saying things they later may regret.

They get carried away with the intoxication of the moment, reveling in the bravos and backslaps, forgetting that the next day there'll be a price to pay.

The habit afflicts Republicans and Democrats alike. Republicans roar on about "right to life" (against abortion rights) and the sacred 2nd Amendment (gun worship). Their bar buddies cheer inside the convention hall. But outside, most voters who hear such loud talk are turned off.

This came to mind as I listened to political newcomer Al Checchi go on Sunday about repealing Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that ended racial and gender preferences in state hiring, contracting and student admissions. It passed by a comfortable margin of 9.1 percentage points.

Holding a news conference at the Democratic state convention, Checchi disclosed that if he is elected governor, he intends "at the end of two years . . . after I gain the confidence of my fellow citizens" to lead a repeal effort against 209. He called the ballot initiative "a terrible mistake," adding harshly that "it is an embarrassment" for California that Houston voters rejected a similar measure last November. "They didn't think it was right and fair and they didn't like the implication of what it said about them, particularly to the rest of the world."

In other words, you should feel embarrassment--and know that you're a dirtbag in the eyes of the world--if you're one of the nearly 5.3 million Californians who voted for 209.

The shame!

*

Rep. Jane Harman of Torrance, currently Checchi's main rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, was much more circumspect. No loud talk from her.

Asked by reporters about a repeal, Harman answered candidly: "Well, I don't know what public support there would be." She pledged "aggressive outreach"--as did Checchi--to recruit administration appointees and university students who reflect California's diversity.

Only when pressed by reporters did Harman say she would support a repeal if it were on the ballot. "I'm going to introduce a climate that makes 209 irrelevant," she vowed.

Indeed, Harman told me a month ago that she's against racial and gender preferences, including business "set asides." The reason she opposed 209, the congresswoman explained, was the fear that it could reverse some rights women recently have won.

Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who's running third, sounded like the pragmatic old pro that he is. You won't find him leading any repeal effort, although he opposed 209 and also strongly favors "outreach."

"Voters expect to have the final say," Davis told reporters. "They passed this just a year or so ago and reasonably expect that we will use our best efforts to find a way to [make it] work."

*

Davis knows firsthand that it is foolhardy for a governor to fight old battles. He understands that a governor only has so much political capital and a limited time to spend it. A chief executive must prioritize and carefully pick his fights, avoiding lost causes.

As Gov. Jerry Brown's chief of staff, Davis witnessed firsthand one of the most remarkable examples of "join 'em, don't fight 'em" switches in state history. In 1978, Brown fought hard against Proposition 13, the property tax relief measure. But when voters approved the initiative overwhelmingly, the governor moved quickly to make it work. You'd have thought Prop. 13 was Brown's idea all along.

"If a governor spends his capital chasing windmills, it will have a deleterious effect on his administration," says attorney Steven Merksamer, Gov. George Deukmejian's top aide and now an advisor to Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the GOP gubernatorial candidate.

Lungren, you can be sure, loved the Democratic convention--particularly Checchi's performance. Checchi said he'd sign a gay marriage bill. (So would Harman, but not Davis.) The rookie pol also pledged to spend $5.1 billion more on K-12 schools. (Harman and Davis declined.)

Checchi clearly is making a play for liberal Democrats. But he also is handing Lungren enough ammunition to attack him as a big-spending liberal, out of touch with mainstream California.

Says Checchi's campaign manager, Darry Sragow: "Al has said from the beginning that he's going to tell voters what he believes. If they don't want to elect him, they can elect one of the career politicians. . . . He abhors divisive, wedge-issue politics and wants to bring Californians together."

Fine. But he's not going to bring Californians together by re-fighting Prop. 209. That's just bar talk.

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