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California voters OK changes to term limits for state legislators

Voters appear reluctant to raise tobacco tax.

June 06, 2012|By Phil Willon and Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • Rep. Howard Berman and his wife, Janis, are surrounded by supporters. He and Rep. Brad Sherman appear headed for a fall battle.
Rep. Howard Berman and his wife, Janis, are surrounded by supporters. He… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Californians approved a change to term limits for state lawmakers, but a measure to raise tobacco taxes for the first time in nearly two decades was in trouble, voting returns showed late Tuesday.

In Southern California contests, the nonpartisan race for Los Angeles County district attorney was locked in a three-way contest among Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Jackson and L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. Lacey, who was leading the pack, would become the first African American or female D.A. in county history if elected in a November runoff to replace the retiring Steve Cooley.

Three incumbent Los Angeles County supervisors — Mark Ridley-Thomas, Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich — appeared to be breezing to new four-year terms, with only Antonovich facing a challenger.

With both Democratic President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney already having sewn up their party's nominations, California's presidential primary was anti-climactic, deflating voter enthusiasm and turnout at the polls.

Those who cast ballots made state history, however, with the first test of California's newly drawn political districts and the first comprehensive use of the top-two primary — which in races for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and state Legislature sends the two candidates who collect the most votes to the November election, regardless of party affiliation.

Both changes were tailored to favor candidates with at least somewhat wide appeal, including those not hitched to any political party, and mute the hyper-partisan rancor consuming Washington and Sacramento. Among the offspring of these changes were some political oddities.

San Fernando Valley Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both shifted into the same district, were on pace to collect enough votes Tuesday to continue their intraparty grudge match through the November general election — sans a Republican challenger — and a party-backed Democrat was battling to survive until this fall's race for a Ventura County congressional seat that tilts slightly to the left.

"Candidates of both parties are being forced to talk to a much wider range of voters than ever before, instead of relying on the ideological bases of their parties, to get to the general election," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "We're going to see a greater number of competitive elections, and that'll lead to the election of more responsive candidates."

Bucking that trend was U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who finished far ahead of a pack of 23 mostly unknown, scantily funded challengers in her bid for a fourth full term. Danville autism activist Elizabeth Emken, endorsed by the state Republican leadership, collected enough votes to face the popular, well funded Feinstein in November — a task so daunting that the Senate race failed to attract even an adventurous GOP middleweight.

Many races remained too close to call as votes were being counted late Tuesday, especially in contests with crowded fields and candidates separated by mere percentage points. Low turnout only added to the volatility.

Katrina Eagilen, a dentist who was in charge of a precinct at the base of Mt. Washington on Tuesday morning, shook her head in dismay at the paucity of voters.

"I'm a little bit disappointed," she said, gesturing at the empty voting booths and the quiet room. "Something so important, we should have the place crowded."

Tobacco companies poured nearly $47 million into their campaign to defeat Proposition 29, a tax designed to raise an estimated $860 million a year for research on tobacco-related diseases and prevention programs.

The American Cancer Society and other proponents predicted that the increase in cigarette prices would stop 220,000 kids from starting to smoke and encourage 100,000 current smokers to quit. They raised more than $11 million, including $500,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $1.5 million from cycling champ Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation.

Backed by the tobacco money, a coalition of anti-tax and business organizations mounted an aggressive campaign against the initiative, including a flood of television commercials and campaign mailers. The proposition, they argued, would create an unaccountable bureaucracy and allow the tax dollars to be siphoned out of California.

Voters were less conflicted about Proposition 28, which would limit lawmakers to 12 years in the Legislature, but allow them to serve the entire stretch in the Assembly or Senate. In 1990, Californians limited lawmakers to three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year stints in the Senate, for a total of 14 years in Sacramento.

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