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California and the West

Golden State Loses Luster Under Bush

Clout: He seems no more enamored of California than its voters were of him. Stand on energy crisis signals state's favored status may have ended with Clinton's term.

February 20, 2001|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — After years of most favored status, California is facing a new relationship with the man in the White House--a man more Midland than Malibu, more estranged from California than enchanted by it and perhaps less apt to feel the state's pain.

President Bush spent an exorbitant sum last fall but still lost California by 1.3 million votes, a margin that accounts for his loss of the popular vote nationally.

That political reality, along with Bush's largely hands-off approach to California's electricity crisis, suggests to some that the days of nearly unconditional White House affection have come to an abrupt end.

"The gravy train is definitely over," said Tony Quinn, a longtime Republican strategist in Sacramento.

Gone is the president bewitched by--and politically beholden to--the Golden State, with his mandate that every Cabinet chief scour his or her department for programs that could benefit California.

Gone, too, are the high-level Californians who stocked the Clinton White House and, in the words of ex-Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, always kept "a warm spot" in their heart for the folks back home.

There are no Californians among Bush's top political advisors. "That warm spot," said Panetta, a former Monterey congressman, "has been replaced by Texas."

But White House officials and their allies insist there is no intention to slight California and its Democratic governor, or walk away from the state and abandon its 34 million residents.

"We're going to fight hard for California," said Karl Rove, a senior advisor to Bush and the president's chief political strategist. "Our view is California is too important not to play."

It is no accident, Rove went on, that Bush's Cabinet includes three Californians--including the agriculture secretary, a position vital to the state's top industry--and just two Texans.

Ann Veneman, the daughter of a Modesto peach farmer, is the first woman to serve as the nation's agriculture chief. Others with California ties include Rancho Santa Fe's Anthony J. Principi, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, a former longtime San Jose congressman and carry-over from President Clinton's Cabinet.

"I haven't heard any talk" of writing off the state, said Bobby Koch, senior vice president of San Francisco's Wine Institute, a former Democratic congressional staffer and an informal advisor to his brother-in-law, the president. "I think California will continue to be in good hands."

The stakes are huge. Consider the most recent census.

Ten years ago, the first Bush administration declined to adjust the figures to remedy what even census officials now call an undercount of about 5 million Americans, primarily minorities living in Los Angeles and other big cities.

Studies show that the move cost California a congressional seat and about $2 billion in federal funding for everything from feeding the poor to running its mass transit systems. On Wednesday, the Census Bureau released figures suggesting an undercount of 3 million in the most recent tally.

A politically charged decision on adjusting the 2000 head count is pending, with the president effectively having the final say.

For eight years California had a fast friend in Clinton, who viewed his political prosperity and that of the nation's most populous state as largely one and the same.

He took office as the first Democrat to carry California in more than a generation and immediately set to work securing the state as a party stronghold for years to come.

The composition of the White House political staff underscored Clinton's priorities: There were special liaisons to organized labor, the African American community, the centrist wing of the Democratic Party and to California.

"He wasn't going to let issues develop or fester or pass if there was a possible way the administration could be helpful," said John Emerson, who placed more than 350 fellow Californians in the administration early on as Clinton's deputy personnel director.

"He made it clear . . . he wanted someone from California who understood the issues and knew the various players to be involved in whatever policies there were."

The Clinton administration--and often the president himself--was on the front line whenever calamities struck California, from recession to earthquakes, from floods to base closings.

Just as important were the Californians who surrounded Clinton, serving in White House positions that gave them important sway over day-to-day operations.

Any administration will respond to disasters such as the Northridge earthquake. Having well-placed friends meant high-level White House attention to more parochial matters as well, such as funding for Los Angeles' Alameda Corridor, San Diego's beach cleanup and the preservation of San Francisco's Presidio.

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