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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Credit Democrats for Greening of the Assembly

April 12, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Audie Bock, California's new political phenom, says she dumped the Democratic Party and became a Green after President Clinton "screwed up" on national health care. Now she has become America's first Green legislator after the Democratic Party screwed up by underestimating her and taking its voters for granted.

Just how badly did the Democrats screw up? This is the numbers story that tells it best: Democratic candidate Elihu Harris--a former two-term Oakland mayor and six-term assemblyman--could coax only 7.6% of the registered voters to support him in a special Assembly election. And this was his old district, where 66% of the registered voters are Democrats.

Bock's Green Party comprises only 1.4% of the registered voters there. But 7.7% sided with her, and that was enough to make history on March 30. Overall, the voter turnout was a scant 15.3%, and among this small electorate Bock eked out a 50.6% to 49.4% triumph.

It was unheard of; too far-fetched to be believable if offered as fiction. It's like the L.A. Lakers losing to a church team. They'd have to be no-shows and forfeit, which basically is what Harris and the Democrats did in Oakland.

"Whatever happened, it was inexcusable," says Gov. Gray Davis. "That district should be a slam-dunk for Democrats."

Democrats were riding high and cocky after their big victories last November. Led by Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, they picked up five Assembly seats to boost their majority to 48-32. But one Democrat, Don Perata of Alameda, also got elected to the Senate to create an Assembly vacancy and require the special election. Then, while the speaker snoozed, the Greens stole a seat.

"I'm not a crybaby," Villaraigosa says. "I lost one. I've got to accept responsibility and learn from it. We learned you can't take any race for granted. In the seeds of every defeat is the next victory."


But back to Bock.

Don't believe the cynics who say she had nothing to do with this. True, Harris ran a lazy, timid, smug campaign while Democrats dozed. But Bock couldn't have won if enough voters had not deemed her an acceptable alternative.

As she sums it up: "They didn't like the other guy. Therefore, they were willing to take a chance on somebody who seemed to be OK."

A Harvard-educated part-time community college instructor with a radiant smile and easy laugh, Bock, 53, knocked on doors, spoke at civic forums and managed to raise $34,000--a pittance against Harris' $400,000--for a few mailers and lawn signs. She was that "Little Engine That Could" Davis keeps reading to schoolkids about.

In years past, this single mom had contributed pocket change to Democratic candidates. But she got disgusted when Clinton failed to deliver, as promised, on national health care.

"After Clinton screwed up," she recalls, "I said, 'We are not going to join the community of civilized nations with the kind of politicking we have in this country.' It was time to put my party affiliation where my ideals were."


Bock decided to run for the Assembly--her first race ever--when she realized the only candidates were Democrats. That's undemocratic, she thought.

Harris' seasoned advisor, Richie Ross, wanted to covertly recruit some Republican into the race to diffuse the anti-Harris vote that had piled up during the mayoral years. He feared it might all go to another Democrat, leading to Harris' defeat in the primary. But Harris nixed the notion because a Republican candidate virtually would have assured a runoff between each party's top vote-getter. Harris wanted to win it all in the February primary by capturing 50% of the vote. And he almost did, but wound up in a runoff against the Green.

"That was the principal mistake," Ross asserts. "If a Republican had been on the [runoff] ballot with the Green, Elihu would have been sworn into office."

No doubt. But Harris also could have won if he'd gotten off his duff and asked people for their votes--and if glazed-eyed Democratic leaders had heeded Ross' warnings of pending doom and pumped in more money and troops.

The outcome has a racial impact. Harris is African American--Bock is white--and Oakland for a half century had been represented by at least one black legislator. Now there is none. In fact, there is none north of L.A. County.

But Bock seems a short-timer. She's up for reelection in 2000, a presidential year when there'll be a lot bigger Democratic turnout.

"She's a nice person, but she's in the wrong party," says one top Assembly Democrat. "This isn't personal, it's professional. That's a Democratic seat. We're gonna take her out."

For now, however, Democrats deserve what they got. And so does Bock. She's fresh air for the political system.

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