In California, deep pockets didn't bring many happy returns

June 09, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The millionaire candidates club -- whose members think they can buy public office with their seemingly limitless check-writing ability -- had a striking "No Sale" rung up on them a week ago in the California gubernatorial and senatorial primary elections.

The lesson from California voters was that while money still talks in politics, if it raises its voice too loudly or too conspicuously, voters get fed up. The buying of television advertising among the Democrats amounted to political carpet-bombing that voters apparently considered more an intrusion than an education.

The victory of Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis over two heavily self-financed contenders, former Northwest Airlines executive Al

Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman, wife of a well-heeled industrialist, in the wildest-spending primary in the nation's history, was a dramatic warning of the perils of campaign overkill.

Mr. Checchi, a political neophyte, poured more than $40 million of his own money into his bid for the Democratic nomination and got only 13 percent of the vote for his trouble. Conversely, Mr. Davis won 35 percent of the vote and raised money by traditional appeals to party supporters. Ms. Harman's spending of about $8 million netted her only 12 percent of the vote.

Mr. Davis will face state Attorney General Dan Lungren in November who had weak opposition in the primary. Mr. Lungren led all Republican candidates with 33 percent of the vote in the state's first "blanket" primary -- bunching all candidates on one ballot. The fact that Mr. Davis outran him despite such well-financed opponents was a major boost for him as he turns his attention to Mr. Lungren.

In the Senate primary, money again failed to buy the sought-after result. Darrell Issa, a rich auto-alarm maker who spent about $10 million on television ads against underfinanced state Treasurer Matt Fong, got only 19 percent of the vote to 22 percent for Mr. Fong, who will face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in the fall.

The one place where money talked loudly and effectively was in organized labor's expensive fight to beat Proposition 226, which would have required unions to get permission annually from members to spend their dues and assessments to support political candidates and causes. The measure, well ahead early, faltered in the face of a withering barrage of union television ads depicting the proposal as a threat to everything from medical care and charitable giving to voter privacy.

The proposition was clearly anti-union, but its proponents' pitch -- that it was simple fairness to let union members decide how their money was spent in politics -- at first was so well received that the union strategists felt obliged to broaden their attack. In the end, however, they focused again on the view that Proposition 226 was an assault on working men and women, and beat it, 54 percent to 46. Labor's success was considered critical nationally because it is likely to slow an effort by Republican leaders in Congress to pass what they call "paycheck protection" legislation.

The other major voter initiative, Proposition 227 ending bilingual education as a general policy in California's public schools, won easily, 61 percent to 39, largely because opponents -- teachers unions and the California PTA -- failed to convince the state's mushrooming Latino community that conducting most classes in English would be harmful to Spanish-speaking children. Most Latino parents, according to the polls, agreed that this approach would better prepare their children.

One prominent candidate who won without much money working for or against him was former two-term governor and three-time presidential candidate Jerry Brown. Despite being accused of being a carpetbagger, Mr. Brown easily was elected mayor of Oakland with 59 percent of the vote against 10 local opponents, thus avoiding a runoff.

Mr. Brown was frank that he wants to use the down-and-out city as a laboratory for innovative ideas he has been talking about since leaving Sacramento. His election guarantees a spotlight on Oakland as he tries them out.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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