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Now for Act II

November 12, 2005

CALIFORNIA'S DEMOCRATIC leaders are still glowing from their trashing of the governor's lame reform agenda at the polls. They should think again about what really happened.

The three measures that came closest to passing -- Propositions 73, 74 and 75 -- were the simplest and most overtly political items on the ballot. The latter two were aimed at the heart of public employee unions' power: job protection and political influence. Had voter turnout been lower, the result on all three initiatives might have been different.

Thoughtful Democrats in the Legislature understand that their party and the public employee unions have a joined-at-the-hip image that is as negative in the public eye as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's embrace of the state Chamber of Commerce. The unions do themselves no good by acting as though they own a legislative majority in Sacramento and can get rid of whoever goes against them.

The vote on the three propositions -- which would have barred abortions for minors without parental notification, lengthened probation periods for new teachers and forced unions to gain members' permission to spend dues on political causes -- split the state along red/blue lines (in California, that generally means inland/coast).

This was not so with the rest of the measures, which were also political but dense with technical detail. Only the most bedrock conservative counties (Orange County, for instance) pushed the overall "yes" vote on those measures beyond Proposition 75.

The vast majority of the early mail-ballot count went "yes" on 73, 74 and 75. So did the count in growing swing suburbs such as Ventura and the centrist-conservative city of San Diego. What squelched 75, the most union-unfriendly proposition, was a huge get-out-the-vote effort by unions in major cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, something that is hard to repeat in election after election.

If Democrats spend the next year holding the governor at arm's length to force him into failure, the simmering resentments evident in the tight vote on Proposition 75 won't be long in resurfacing.

There are steps to take to heal some wounds on both sides and help restore voter confidence.

First, the Democrats and the governor should act jointly on a measure to bring down prescription drug prices. The only thing proved in the special election was that the pharmaceutical companies' $80-million campaign caused enough confusion and disgust to table the issue. A legislatively passed drug-discount program could blend the simplest and best features of Propositions 78 and 79. Second, they should put a bipartisan measure on the 2006 primary ballot to take the drawing of legislative districts away from the elected officials who directly benefit. (See editorial above.)

Luckily for California, there are second acts in politics. What we don't yet know is whether our elected officials will write a farce, a tragedy or a happy ending.

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