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CAMPAIGN 2000 | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Conservatives Take Charge as Democrats Fumble

March 09, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Let's review the California landscape: A Democrat sits in the governor's office. Democrats control both legislative houses. Both U.S. senators are Democrats.

Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by about 46% to 35%.

Little of that mattered Tuesday. Republicans reigned in the California elections. Make that conservative Republicans.

Whatever happened to left-leaning, reform-minded, touchy-feely, laid-back California? One thing that happened was a fierce fight among Republican presidential candidates that brought out conservative voters.

Conservatives composed 42% of the electorate, according to a Times exit poll. Moderates accounted for just 25%, liberals 33%. By contrast, in the November, 1998, election, conservatives made up only 34% of the voters. In Tuesday's voting, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a mere 46% to 41%--a margin half their registration advantage--and 70% of the Republicans were conservatives.

The rightward list helps explain what happened to some ballot propositions. Measures banning gay marriages and treating more violent juveniles as adults passed by landslides. A proposed campaign reform that included minuscule public financing lost by a landslide. And a measure making it easier to pass local school construction bonds--and therefore to raise property taxes--was narrowly rejected.

"John McCain drove the hard-core conservatives to the polls," says GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum. They went there to flatten McCain and boost George Bush.

And once in the polling booths, notes GOP analyst Tony Quinn, "conservatives had their way on issue matters."

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Here are some telling numbers: Prop. 26, which would have reduced the vote requirement for local school bonds from two-thirds to a simple majority, was solidly rejected by Bush voters, 67% to 33%. Every other major candidate's voters supported the measure. (McCain's by 53% to 47%.)

Prop. 26 lost by a 2.4% margin, according to the latest count. It didn't help Prop. 26 that women--who tended to favor the proposal--were only 44% of the turnout. Nor that Latinos represented just 7% of the turnout, despite their being roughly 30% of the California population. Latinos who did vote supported Prop. 26 by a landslide margin.

So not all of the conservative-skewed voter mix can be laid on the Bush-McCain fight. Apathetic Democrats, from Gov. Gray Davis down, were out-hustled and outmaneuvered.

The Democratic party--which gives great lip service to improving schools--and the education establishment muffed a historic opportunity to junk an archaic, 121-year-old law that results in classroom overcrowding and dilapidated facilities unfit for learning.

There was a lot of finger pointing at the governor Wednesday by anonymous Prop. 26 backers. They had asked him to raise money for the initiative and also to promote it in his State of the State address in January. He did neither.

Davis did dial for dollars to defeat the campaign-reform measure, which would have crimped his and other politicians' fund-raising. He also promoted the water and parks bonds. But his help for Prop. 26 was little and late, consisting mainly of securing Mayor Richard Riordan's election-eve endorsement.

But many Democrats dropped the ball. Where were L.A.'s Latino leaders? Why wasn't there a major get-out-the-vote drive?

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Of course, no entity is more responsible for Prop. 26's demise than the L.A. school board. Not long after 71% of the district's voters approved a $2.4-billion school bond issue in 1997, the board authorized construction of the Belmont Learning Complex on an abandoned oil field. It pumped $200 million in tax dollars down a dry hole.

That fiasco--plus political squabbling over district leadership--disgusted L.A. voters, private polls showed.

Consequently on Tuesday, L.A. County narrowly rejected Prop. 26. This in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 53% to 28%. To put this in perspective, 65% of Democrats statewide voted for Prop. 26.

The voter turnout in Los Angeles County was only 43%, compared with 53% across the state. Conceivably the residents who stayed home would have put Prop. 26 over the top. At any rate, L.A. is where the measure lost.

What good is all that Democratic political power if it lies unused--or in the school district's case, misused--on an issue so vital to its core constituents?

It was a big day for conservatives. A bad day for schools. A dismal day for Democrats--and this time they can't blame it all on Republicans.

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