LOS ANGELES -- Campaign strategists for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dianne Feinstein are elated by a series of judicial decisions that help even the playing field against Republican Sen. Pete Wilson as their contest enters its final month.
The refusal of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to overrule a lower-court decision throwing out certain limits on campaign contributions gives Feinstein a greatly improved chance for a homestretch television advertising blitz on a par with the much-better financed Wilson.
O'Connor declined to block the decision of U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton declaring unconstitutional Proposition 73, approved at the ballot box in 1988. It barred state and local candidates from taking more than $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from political committees in any fiscal year.
Lawyers for the state Democratic Party, now chaired by former ** Gov. Jerry Brown, and the Democratic leaders in the California legislature argued successfully that the time limit gave incumbents an unfair advantage over challengers. The lawyers noted that incumbents would have four years to tap the annual limit, whereas challengers would probably have only one.
The judge agreed, and also held the law violated First Amendment rights to political expression. The U.S. District Court of Appeals supported Karlton, as did Justice O'Connor, apparently opening the door to unlimited fund-raising and giving.
(The full Supreme Court late Friday decided to review the decision on Oct. 10. Until then, the candidates are free to raise unlimited funds.)
Even before O'Connor's ruling, comedian Chevy Chase wrote Feinstein a check for $50,000, and campaign aides say she raised more than $1 million on the basis of the first ruling alone.
While the decision is certain to unleash a fund-raising frenzy on both sides that will appall campaign finance reformers, it is much more significant for Feinstein. She has been outspent by well more than 2-to-1 by Wilson, who according to campaign manager Otto Bos has $3 million in the bank going into the last month. By contrast, Feinstein media consultant Hank Morris says, "We've sort of been running on empty, but the tank keeps filling up."
The court's decision now assures that, with Feinstein in a close race with Wilson, the campaign money tank will get ample fuel from organized labor and other supporters. They see her candidacy as the Democrats' best shot at regaining the governorship since Republican Gov. George Deukmejian took over from Jerry Brown eight years ago.
The decision could not have come at a better time for Feinstein, as the campaign approaches the period of most voter attentiveness, after a summer and early fall of modest interest. Bill Carrick, Feinstein's campaign manager, notes that Wilson has already been saturating the airwaves with commercials and can't do much more, no matter how much more money he raises.
Morris asks: "What's he going to do, buy two-minute commercials instead of one-minute commercials?" On the other hand, he says, Feinstein was facing the possibility of not being competitive in television ads in the final four weeks, but now should be able to have enough money to counter the continuing Wilson television saturation.
The Wilson campaign, frustrated by the court decisions, said it, too, will accept individual contributions in excess of $1,000, but not from any "special-interest groups" that do business with the state or federal governments. But defining "special interests" is a loophole you can drive a Brink's truck through.
Bos insists the ruling will unmask Feinstein as a special-interest candidate as she seeks aggressively to exploit the decision by taking large amounts from labor and other groups. To an earlier Feinstein call on Wilson to abide by the $1,000 limit, Bos says now: "We're not suicidal."
One new issue that seems certain to get a thorough airing through Feinstein television ads made possible by the court ruling is Wilson's Senate absenteeism. Carrick says Wilson has the third-worst attendance record this year, behind only one senator who has been ill and another who has died.
The objective will be to portray Wilson as overly ambitious, trying to get another job with two years still to serve in the Senate, and with the prospect of appointing his own successor if elected governor. It is a pitch the Feinstein campaign doubtless would have made without the court ruling, but is now greatly facilitated by it.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of the The Sunday Sun.