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Bush Is Off to a Rocky Start in His Handling of All Things Californian

Politics: But why woo the Golden State when he can't carry it in an election 'no matter how hard he tries,' one analyst points out.


WASHINGTON — So what if President Bush has opposed electricity price controls sought by California officials? Or that he has proposed cutting aid to states for incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of crimes? Or that he has visited 26 states in his first 100 days in office--but not the most populous?

Bush really does care about California, the White House insists, even if the state preferred Al Gore on election day. Administration officials said they have done a lot and plan to do more to lessen the electricity turmoil expected this summer.

"I don't think he's treated California any differently than any other state," said Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa).

Some Californians feel otherwise.

"The Bush administration's treatment of California started at indifference, moved to neglect and has now reached actual harm," complained Phil Schiliro, chief of staff for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has asked three times for a meeting with Bush to discuss the energy crisis. Her response from the White House: a form letter with her name misspelled.

Bush has called for requiring public agencies to buy costly earthquake insurance, a measure opposed by California lawmakers of both parties. He has proposed cutting an earthquake preparedness program. And he provided no money in his proposed budget to clean up a pile of uranium processing waste in Utah leaking into the Colorado River.

"That's our water supply," political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said. "What kind of message is that?"

John J. Pitney Jr., associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said Bush's apparent indifference makes political sense.

"It's hard to argue that Bush should spend any political capital in California," he said. "The 2000 election suggested that he cannot carry the state no matter how hard he tries. The Republicans have already lost several House seats and have probably hit rock bottom. . . . From a purely political angle, there's little point in giving California any money or attention that could otherwise go to more competitive states, such as Florida."

But Jeffe, senior scholar at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development, said Bush's failure to visit the state is hurting GOP efforts to rebuild itself in California. "We are ground zero for the kind of Latino outreach that he said he wanted to do."

And veteran California Republican political strategist Kenneth L. Khachigian said Bush at least needs to prepare for the electricity problems predicted for summer.

"If you get three or four days of successive blackouts, air conditioners going out, traffic lights going out, a second bankruptcy--whether he wants it or not--it's his problem," Khachigian said. "It would be wise for him to have a proactive stance, not just reactive."

Tough Act to Follow

Some political analysts have suggested that if Bush becomes too involved in California's troubles, what is now Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' problem could become Bush's. But, Khachigian said, "there's a fine line between taking responsibility for a problem and claiming that California isn't part of the United States."

In dealing with heavily Democratic California, Bush has made this much clear: He is no Bill Clinton.

Bush has a hard act to follow. When Clinton was president, he visited California often and rewarded it with federal largess. And California in return showered him with buckets of campaign dollars and electoral votes.

But Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) said California will benefit from Bush's presidency too. "As Californians bear a disproportionately higher tax burden, they stand to benefit greatly from the president's tax relief plan."

While House spokeswoman Claire Buchan assured that Bush will visit California soon. His wife already has done so.

As proof that California is on their mind, administration officials point to the three Californians in the Cabinet--Ann M. Veneman of Agriculture, Norman Y. Mineta of Transportation and Anthony J. Principi of Veterans Affairs--and others in top White House jobs.

Bush also has appointed California Latinos to high-level posts: Huntington Park Councilwoman Rosario Marin as treasurer, Los Angeles entrepreneur Hector V. Barreto Jr. as head of the Small Business Administration and former San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales as deputy assistant for intergovernmental affairs.

Critics said that a Californian at the top does not guarantee that the Cabinet departments will develop California-friendly policies. The proposed Agriculture budget, for example, provides only $5 million--not the $15 million that California lawmakers said they need--to fight the glassy winged sharpshooter, an agricultural pest that threatens the state's wine industry.

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