Tipping scales in Calif. governor's race

August 02, 1998|By George F. Will

SAN DIEGO -- California's gubernatorial race, a contest between two utility infielders in politics, may reverberate as much on Capitol Hill as in California. One of the winner's most important acts, which will be performed in the last half of his term, will be to shape the redistricting based on the 2000 census.

The Republican infielder, Attorney General Dan Lungren, 51, whose father was Richard Nixon's physician, is a political lifer who served on two U.S. Senate staffs, and twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress before winning in 1978.

He believes that Democratic control of the governorship when redistricting was done after the 1980 census may have meant seven additional Democratic seats in Congress, at a time when California's House delegation numbered 43. Today that delegation is 52 and Lungren believes the next redistricting can influence the outcome in 12 districts.

The current Republican majority in the House is 22.

A mighty presence

Furthermore, California's governorship matters mightily in presidential politics. California's 54 electoral votes give it more heft than any state has had since New York in the 1870s.

National Democrats are desperate for their infielder, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, 55, to move up because they need Sacramento to counterbalance Austin, Tallahassee, Lansing, Madison, Richmond, Harrisburg and Albany, among other places. Today Republicans hold 32 of the 50 governorships. If Mr. Lungren wins and, as seems probable, Jeb Bush switches Florida's statehouse from Democratic control, Republicans almost certainly will enter 2000 controlling the governorships of the five most populous fTC states (Pennsylvania, New York and Texas, too). Those five states have 167 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

One Mr. Lungren problem is voter restlessness: Republicans have held the governorship for 16 years, since Jerry Brown. Mr. Lungren, disregarding the axiom that elections are rarely about the past, plans to paint Mr. Davis brown by reminding voters that Mr. Davis, another lifer, began his political career in 1975 as Jerry's chief of staff. Mr. Lungren will say Mr. Davis was complicit in such controversial acts as making the hyper-liberal Rose Bird California's chief justice. That will take a bushel of reminding.

The state's population has increased almost 7 million since Mr. Brown (who in June was elected mayor of Oakland) left Sacramento.

And the tumult that resulted in Bird being removed by recall is about as fresh in California's memory as the Punic Wars.

Many Democrats immunize themselves against the scandal of liberalism by supporting capital punishment, which Mr. Davis does. And he emphasizes his service in Vietnam. On the Fourth of July he marched in three parades wearing his veteran's cap. Mr. Lungren received a draft deferment.

Driving wedges

Mr. Davis has mastered the political art of doing something by vowing never to do it. When he and Mr. Lungren addressed a recent rally of more than 1,000 Latinos, Mr. Davis waved the bloody shirt of two recent ballot initiatives, one that ended racial preferences by state government, another that denied public benefits to illegal immigrants.

Using these issues to drive a wedge between Mr. Lungren and Latinos, Mr. Davis said the initiatives had been wedge issues, used to divide the electorate, and he is above that sort of thing.

Mr. Lungren countered, somewhat limply, not by defending the two propositions, which he endorsed, but by saying he played football with people named Heredia, Contreras, Morales and Ortega. And he stressed that in Congress he sponsored the amnesty program for illegals which, he said, made possible the subsequent surge of Latino immigration.

Latino participation in the 1998 primary was twice that in the 1994 primary. Latinos are 12 percent of the electorate. In 1986 Gov. George Deukmejian got 46 percent of the Latino vote. In 1994 Gov. Pete Wilson got 25 percent. In 1996 in California Bob Dole got less than 10 percent.

Mr. Lungren, a right-to-life Catholic, is trying to win in a state that, since George Bush carried it in 1988, has voted only for pro-choice presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial candidates. His candidacy will test the theory that the abortion debate now favors conservatives because most voters understand that abortion will not be banned, and most side with conservatives on the three legislative issues -- banning late-term abortions, banning public funding and requiring parental notification.

Regarding the closest thing to a hot issue this year, education, Mr. Lungren believes Mr. Davis ("No one," says Mr. Lungren, "panders better than Gray Davis") is too tightly tethered to the status quo, meaning the teachers unions, to be sufficiently bold. But in the June "jungle" primary, in which all candidates appeared on the same ballot, Mr. Davis, running against two well-funded rivals, got more votes than Mr. Lungren got running unopposed, and the three Democrats got 60 percent of the votes.

The election probably will be close; it certainly will be consequential.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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