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Rumble Below May Shake the Mighty

September 15, 2002|SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC.

In most elections, the top of the ticket drives the down-ballot contests. In most elections, the total number of votes declines as you move down the ballot. But California's election is shaping up to defy this conventional wisdom.

The turgid gubernatorial contest and a lack of hot-button initiatives on the November ballot have further estranged an alienated electorate. Voters' dissatisfaction with their electoral lot is palpable.

A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California indicated that 54% of likely voters were not satisfied with their choice of gubernatorial contenders. According to the latest Field poll, a majority of likely voters view both Gov. Gray Davis and his Republican challenger, Bill Simon Jr., more unfavorably than favorably.

There is anecdotal evidence that some Californians will go to the polls and just leave the governor's line blank. So grim is the situation that a write-in campaign for former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost to Simon in the GOP primary, has not drawn laughs.

As a result, "boutique turnout" generated by a smattering of local issues and races up and down the state, among them secession measures, will help play a major role in defining the electorate and that, in turn, may affect the governor's contest and other up-ticket races, rather than the other way around.

In the past, certain statewide ballot initiatives have so galvanized the public that they drove the whole election. In 1982, a gun-control initiative helped the Republican gubernatorial nominee, George Deukmejian, squeak by Democrat Tom Bradley. Estimates were that the rural vote increased by 5% to 10%. This pro-gun, largely GOP electorate voted against the initiative, then stuck around to vote for Deukmejian.

In 1994, Proposition 187, which denied certain services to illegal immigrants, helped Gov. Pete Wilson clobber his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown. More than 7.8 million Californians voted on the proposition, while the vote total for the two major parties' candidates for governor was roughly 300,000 less.

Proposition 13 is perhaps the most striking example of how voters' interest in a ballot measure can eclipse contests for elective office. About 6.5 million votes were cast on the property-tax-limitation initiative, which passed overwhelmingly in California's 1978 primary. Roughly 700,000 fewer votes were cast for all 19 gubernatorial candidates in party primaries. Legislative nominees, dubbed "Prop. 13 babies," rode the anti-tax fervor to victory in the fall.

This year, the races and issues likely to motivate voters don't involve the statewide electorate. The highest-profile ones are the Valley and Hollywood secession measures. The city of L.A. accounts for roughly 10% of the state's registered voters, and both sides of the secession fight have promised a concerted get-out-the-vote effort.

Speculation was that Valley secession could boost Republican turnout. A July Los Angeles Times Poll indicated that roughly two-thirds of the city's GOP voters favored secession. Fifteen contests for local Valley offices (should the new city be approved), involving more than 100 candidates, could also motivate high-propensity Republican voters.

The race for Valley mayor is competitive. Among the candidates are moderate GOP Assemblyman Keith Richman and longtime Valley Democratic activist Mel Wilson. Richman, who is also running for reelection in his Valley-centric Assembly district, has the most sophisticated campaign organization and fund-raising apparatus.

But it may be Davis and the Democrats who get a boost from the secession issue. Politically powerful L.A. unions are putting their muscle and money behind the anti-secession campaign. Labor's political operation, said Miguel Contreras of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, will be focused primarily on getting union members, a key Democratic constituency, to the polls to oppose secession.

Labor has given Davis strong support. In 1998, when unions statewide pushed their members to the polls to defeat Proposition 226, which would have required written permission to use a member's dues for political activities, their numbers helped catapult Davis over two better-funded opponents in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Latinos constitute the largest ethnic bloc in L.A.'s unions. According to The Times Poll, Latino voters citywide oppose secession, 45% to 36%, while a majority of Valley Latinos support independence. Even those who turn out to vote for secession aren't likely to swoon over Simon; they're more likely to stick around to vote for Davis.

The Times Poll indicates that Jewish voters, another important Democratic constituency, oppose secession regardless of where they live. Citywide, they're against secession 57% to 34%; a majority of Jewish voters in the Valley are also opposed.

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