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Limping to the Finish

Campaigns Lack Drama as National Problems Override California Concerns

October 27, 2002|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

There are few issues that matter more in politics than peace and prosperity. And yet as the economy drags its heels and the nation marches toward possible war with Iraq, there is an oddly disconnected feel to this election season in California.

Perhaps it's because those issues and their associated anxieties seem so far removed from Sacramento. "There's no state election that's going to affect anything having to do with terrorism, international affairs, snipers or anything that people seem to be fixated on," said political analyst Tony Quinn, a former GOP strategist. "And there's no sign that people think Sacramento has anything to do with the economy of California."

The latter view may be overly dismissive. But events and politicians alike have conspired to rob this election of much of its usual enticement.

In redrawing the state's legislative and congressional boundaries -- part of a once-a-decade process reflecting population shifts -- the Legislature managed to effectively remove serious competition from all but a few contests across the state.

After inserting himself into the other party's primary through a $10-million advertising blitz against front-runner Richard Riordan, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis drew the opponent he preferred. He is now a solid favorite to win a second term over Republican businessman Bill Simon Jr. -- notwithstanding voters' deep and abiding distaste for him.

Hanging over it all is the insidious shadow of Sept. 11, which suddenly made the world seem a smaller and more vulnerable place -- and the usual back-and-forth of politics seem irrelevant.

"The big concern for voters is over things they can't control," said Jaime Regalado, a political scientist and executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles. "People are saying, 'I'm not sure voting is the way to safeguard myself in this new world.' "

The jagged tone of the race for governor has hardly offered much reassurance.

As a result, experts are forecasting a record low turnout on election day, Nov. 5, to match the overwhelming stay-at-home rate in the March primary, when only about a quarter of eligible Californians cast ballots.

The apathy is evident to strategists like Gale Kaufman. The Democratic consultant has convened numerous focus groups in the last 18 months -- only to find the people complaining at the prospect of having to discuss politics for a full two hours. "People just don't seem to care," Kaufman said.

Of course, millions of Californians will turn out to vote in just nine days, grudgingly or not. Some will act out of patriotism or a sense of civic responsibility. Others will enter the polling booth fired with conviction: for Davis or for Simon, to split apart the city of Los Angeles or to keep the nation's second-largest city intact.

It may not be war and peace, but there are plenty of important decisions to be made, among them filling eight statewide offices, ruling on seven state ballot initiatives, confirming three California Supreme Court justices and deciding those few competitive legislative and congressional races that present true contests.

Topping the ticket is the race for governor, headlined by two candidates who have spent far more time dwelling on their rival's shortcomings than offering any affirmative thoughts on, say, dealing with the state's budget problems, its fraying infrastructure or overcrowded freeways.

Davis has attacked businessman Simon as a right-wing political novice in far over his head -- an assault abetted by the rookie candidate's frequent campaign stumbles. Simon has assailed Davis as an ineffective and unprincipled money-grubber -- a charge underlined by the incumbent's hesitant response to the budget and electricity crises, and his ceaseless fund-raising.

Many despairing voters look at the two and see "the classic situation of choosing between the lesser of two evils," as voter Anthony Fenner, an Oakland Democrat, recently put it, using perhaps the most oft-heard statement of this discontented election cycle. "Maybe it's the time to vote my heart instead of trying to avoid someone more horrible than the guy I'm voting for," said the 41-year-old cabinetmaker, who is thinking of backing the Green Party's Peter Camejo or one of three other minor party candidates "to get them on the map."

Along with the race for governor, there are seven other statewide contests to be decided. Democratic incumbents are defending three of their seats against Republican challengers and assorted minor party candidates: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante faces state Sen. Bruce McPherson; Treasurer Phil Angelides is running against Greg Conlon, and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer faces state Sen. Dick Ackerman.

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