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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Soothing Words for Moderates From Lungren

October 26, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Republican Dan Lungren now says he will vote for the two California Supreme Court justices under attack by anti-abortion extremists. And while this alone cannot save his candidacy for governor, it is the kind of smoothing of ideological rough edges that he always has needed to attract centrist voters.

Indeed, it is the best evidence Lungren has offered that he would not use an abortion litmus test in appointing judges. Applicants for the bench can be for or against abortion rights, he long has insisted: "The only litmus test for judges I'll have is, 'Do you understand what your role is? You interpret the law--you don't make the law.' "

But this assurance by the anti-abortion conservative has lacked credibility for many Lungren watchers because he has refused to endorse the two Supreme Court jurists up for retention: Chief Justice Ronald George and Associate Justice Ming Chin. Their sin, in the minds of the extremists, was to help strike down a parental consent requirement for a minor's abortion. George wrote the majority opinion.

As a member of the Commission on Judicial Appointments, Atty. Gen. Lungren voted to confirm both George and Chin after they were selected for the court by Gov. Pete Wilson. But until now, Lungren has remained neutral in their struggle against right-wing opposition to win new 12-year terms.

The GOP candidate has explained that he wants "to lead a charge" to reinstate the parental consent law. And to take a formal stand on the jurists, he has contended, would "politicize" this effort: "I want to change the law, not focus on personality."

The wide suspicion, however, is that Lungren mostly wanted to avoid agitating his conservative base.

But the other day, I put the question to him slightly differently. And I got a response that was significantly different.

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How does he plan to personally vote on the jurists Nov. 3? I asked. "I'm going to vote for all of them," Lungren replied.

This includes two other associate justices up for retention: conservative Janice Rogers Brown and liberal Stanley Mosk, both of whom voted to uphold the parental consent law. Neither faces organized opposition.

He'll vote for George and Chin, Lungren continued, "because I believe they're honorable people. And I believe that they would follow the law. If we're successful in changing the parental consent law by amending the California Constitution, I'm absolutely convinced they'll follow that.

"As I've always told people, do not vote against somebody because of a single issue."

Lungren added, "I still very, very strongly disagree with the [court] opinion. I think it was poorly written. I think it was judicial activism, and I was extremely disappointed. But I don't knock somebody off a court because of a single decision."

We're into nuance and semantics, of course. There must be a fine line somewhere between endorsing someone and merely saying you intend to vote for him. I'm not quite sure where that line is. But an endorsement can include campaign stumping and financial support. Lungren doesn't have any of that in mind. So this probably is a distinction with a difference.

Whatever, Lungren is sending a signal to anti-abortion Californians that it's OK to vote for these justices because--unlike Rose Bird 12 years ago--they are "honorable." And he's messaging moderates that they shouldn't fear--he won't stack the courts with anti-abortion judges.

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In small ways, Lungren already had shown that he's not into abortion litmus tests.

Although Chin supported abortion rights, Lungren still voted to confirm him. "A lot of my supporters criticized me for that," he notes. "They haven't forgotten."

Also, at a GOP National Committee meeting last January, Lungren argued successfully against a proposal to withhold party support from candidates who refuse to oppose late-term abortions. "We need to attack President Clinton, not one another," he asserted.

But what many centrist voters apparently have been envisioning--perhaps largely because of his combative personality--is a scary, inflexible ideologue.

The latest Times poll found 45% of moderates saying they're less likely to vote for Lungren because of his abortion views; only 7% are more likely to. Moderates prefer Democrat Gray Davis over Lungren by 71% to 22%. Overall, Davis leads by 11 points.

No candidate can win a statewide election in California without getting almost half the moderate vote. Lungren also has other problems with moderates--on guns, on schools--but abortion seems his biggest vulnerability.

It's unfortunate for Lungren he didn't volunteer months ago that he'd vote for George and Chin, even if nobody asked.

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