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California and the West | PATT MORRISON

The Political Hothouse of the August Moon

August 30, 2000|PATT MORRISON

It's August, and it's raining.

Rain. In L.A. In August.

If it can rain in L.A. in August, anything is possible.

It is possible that Elvis and Marilyn are living quietly in an A-frame in the Sierra. It is possible that Gray Davis will guest-host "The Tonight Show." It is possible that Charles Manson will get parole.

All right, maybe that part about Gray Davis is a bit farfetched.

But as long as we're in a mind-set for the miraculous, get a load of this:

It is August. On the East Coast, people are still wearing white shoes. On the desk calendar, Labor Day is a couple of pages away. Election day seems as far off as the Crab Nebula.

And what is that alien sound coming out of California radios? What are those images blazing across television screens of the Golden State?

Ads. Political ads. Ads about propositions.

Nobody runs political ads in August in California. Not Al Gore. Not George W. Bush. I suspect even the big players like Coke put their ad-buy budgets on "coast" for August. Only Firestone and United are making big ad buys this August. And theirs are apologies.

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The mystifying complexities of California, along with its don't-block-my-rays attitude toward politics, has made the state as daunting an undertaking for politicians as the Atlantic was to Christopher Columbus.

Californians wouldn't care if the signs hanging outside polling places on election day, forbidding campaigning within 100 feet of those voting booths, instead read "No electioneering within 1,000 miles of polling place."

And a political ad in August in California, besides seeming as pointless as sinking a well on the moon, seems as gratingly unseasonal as spotting Santa at Club Med. Nonetheless, both sides of two propositions, 38 and 39, have been splattering their messages around the summertime state, on radios at the beach, on TVs in RVs, hoping someone is paying attention.

Prop. 38 would provide private-school vouchers of at least $4,000 to most children in public schools. With Silicon Valley venture capitalist Timothy Draper as its checkbook angel, Prop. 38 began its tsunami of TV ads in July--"If you had a TV set," said a spokesman, "you were seeing our ads." The campaign's calculated risk was this: "Even if voters are not paying attention to politics, they're paying attention to their children's education."

That forced the no-on-38 folks to spend the money to hit the airwaves earlier than they would have liked. "If this is David vs. Goliath," said spokesman Jon Lenzner, "Draper is Goliath in Guccis." Although the campaign has begun scaling back its ad buys, Lenzner points to a Field poll as the payoff for the early ad payouts: in June, a tie at 39%, in August, a 49%-36% lead for no-on-38.

Prop. 39 would reduce from two-thirds to 55% the vote required to approve school facilities bonds--almost identical to Prop. 26, which lost by a few percentage points in the March primary. Its supporters hit the airwaves early, a spokeswoman said, "because we just wanted to ensure that people paying close attention to the election are getting accurate information."

Prop. 39's chief opposition is the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., whose ads have tried something that could either alter California politics forever or go down as the Comet Kohoutek of campaign tactics: It asks supporters to "help keep our message on the air by donating $39." Says John Coupal, who heads both the Jarvis group and the no-on-39 committee, "It's working pretty good. We're far ahead of where we were on Prop. 26 at the same time."

It's a political earthquake: ads in August! Shaking the tambourine for donations!

As fertile soil for political parties to cultivate, California is as unsteady as the San Andreas. What non-Californians don't perceive is that, however tepid their allegiances to party, Californians care very much about, well, what they care about. Special interests are the state's political parties--schools, environment, guns, taxes.

And now the special interests are gambling that even voters who are cool to the political boys of autumn will always pay attention when words like "schools" and "kids" and "taxes" zap across their consciousness, even in the dolce far niente depths of summer.

How well have they succeeded?

When an editor asked what I was writing about, I told him it was about the rarity of two propositions airing political ads over the summer.

Oh, he said. Which two?

Ladies and gentlemen, you have your work cut out for you.

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Columnist Patt Morrison writes today for the vacationing Mike Downey. Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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