California's Drought in the Senate

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

March 22, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

HOMEWOOD, CALIFORNIA. — California, with a population and budget bigger than most nations, has a disproportionate thirst for cheap government water, and other states resent it. Within California, the dispute over federally supplied water divides north from south, farm from city, but lawmakers who represent the state at large are politically bound to defend the costly status quo against cuts by outsiders.

Thus the disappearing clout of California's U.S. senators is a serious liability as Congress considers dozens of bills aimed at either boosting drought relief or slicing water subsidies for the state. One has-been senior and one unknown junior senator are looking out for California interests, and both seats will be contested in next year's election.

Alan Cranston, just back in Congress after three months' leave with prostate cancer, is no longer Democratic whip, the No. 3 majority job in the Senate. Fingered by the Ethics Committee as the most culpable of those involved in the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal, he has announced his retirement and carries little of his former legislative weight.

Republican Sen. John Seymour, appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson to fill the seat vacated when Mr. Wilson moved from Washington to Sacramento, has been in Congress so briefly that few there recognize him. And because he will have to defend his seat next year, he is spending even more time than others in long trips home to improve his name recognition among voters.

The result is that at a critical time, California's House members are carrying almost all the burden of protecting state interests in Washington -- and on the water debate, they are far from unanimous. Whatever happens to the water proposals now before Congress, legislatively the state will not be fully armed again until after the 1992 elections.

From the spring primary through November, the elections here may be the national highlight of a year when the presidential contest threatens to be a snore. Already, the two Senate contests have drawn more than a dozen of California's most colorful and durable contenders. Mr. Seymour must defend his seat next year, for a short term ending in 1994. As a relatively moderate disciple of Governor Wilson, he is challenged within the GOP by the outspoken right-winger Bill Dannemeyer, whose specialty is bashing gays and lesbians. Dianne Feinstein, former mayor of San Francisco and loser of last year's gubernatorial election against Mr. Wilson, has announced on the Democratic side.

But Mr. Cranston's full six-year term is much more attractive than a seat that has to be fought for twice in two years, so in both parties the biggest crowd is elbowing into competition for the Cranston seat.

The celebrity contender is former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Mr. Moonbeam who served briefly as Democratic state chairman before announcing for the Cranston seat. He has solid competition from Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and Representatives Mel Levine, Barbara Boxer and Bob Matsui. On a multi-candidate ballot, Mr. Brown's name recognition makes him the early favorite, though how his reputation for dippy enthusiasms would play in the general election is uncertain.

That depends partly on the Republican opposition: running against a hard-right ideologue like Rep. Bob Dornan or TV controversialist Bruce Herschenson, Mr. Brown might seem the less far-fetched choice. But if an orthodox Republican like former Rep. Ed Zschau or Rep. Tom Campbell should enter and win the primary, he could take both the right and center of the spectrum away from former Governor Brown.

Republicans already are trying to make support for going to war in the Persian Gulf a hot-button issue for the senatorial elections. Should voting against President Bush's intervention turn out to be a liability, all Democratic congressmen running here would be vulnerable except Representative Levine, who split with the majority of House Democrats by voting for going to war.

Although Mr. Bush and most politicians are milking the homecoming of gulf-war soldiers for all the red-white-and-blue TV exposure possible, the impact of the war vote on elections still more than 19 months away is unpredictable. Democrats hope domestic concerns like schools, roads and the economy will replace war fervor as an issue by then, and are doing all they can to turn national attention that way.

But in California, whatever happens beyond the state line is foreign news these days compared to the great drought. This month's heavy rains have done little to break it, and this year's senators are ill equipped to ease its impact.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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