Losing the House will be on the GOP's hands

In less than eight months in office, Gov. Gray Davis raised $6.4 million for his re-election campaign.

August 29, 1999|By George F. Will

SAN FRANCISCO -- Republicans may already have lost the fight for control of the House of Representatives throughout the next decade. They may have because California's GOP congressional delegation is at cross-purposes with a California Republican who became a sore winner while successfully pushing an initiative outlawing most bilingual education in California.

Republicans currently have a five-seat majority in the House. California has 52 House seats (Democrats have 27, Republicans 24 and a special election will soon fill a seat a Democrat held until his death). California will have perhaps two more seats after the 2000 Census. The party that controls redistricting can, wielding computers to draw district lines, confer upon itself an advantage of up to 12 seats. In 1998, six of the 24 Republicans won with 53 percent or less of the vote.

Democrats, controlling the governorship and legislature, are rearing to redistrict. And why shouldn't control of redistricting be a perquisite of power? "Nonpartisan" redistricting looks like another attempt to take the politics out of politics. Be that as it may, Ron Unz, a mild-mannered physicist with a messianic streak, thought he had a plan to stymie Democratic redistricting.

Having made some money in Silicon Valley, in 1994 Mr. Unz, then 32, won 34 percent of the vote in the GOP gubernatorial primary, running as a libertarian conservative against the incumbent, Pete Wilson.

In 1997, a protest by some inner-city Hispanic parents against bilingual education prompted him to draft an initiative to largely end such linguistic ghettoization. The initiative was opposed by most newspapers and all gubernatorial candidates, and opponents outspent Mr. Unz about 25-to-1, but his initiative won easily.

Campaign spending

Although his triumph proved that money is not omnipotent, Mr. Unz was incensed about the money mismatch, and particularly about heavy spending by A. Jerrold Perenchio, head of Univision, a Spanish-language broadcasting company. Mr. Unz thinks Mr. Perenchio has an interest in there being lots of Californians with limited proficiency in English.

So Mr. Unz approached California's Republican congressional delegation with a plan to place on the ballot March 7 -- with the presidential primaries pumping up turnout -- a two-part initiative. One, similar to nonpartisan commissions in nine other states, would turn redistricting over to a panel of retired judges. The other would impose campaign-finance restrictions.

The restrictions would include limits on giving ($5,000 for statewide offices, $3,000 for others), daily Internet disclosure of contributions, a ban on corporate contributions, bans on fund-raising until six months before legislative elections and a year before statewide elections, and, in effect, partial public financing -- subsidized mailings and purchases of broadcast time in exchange for accepting "voluntary" spending limits.

Mr. Unz's theory was that campaign reform would be popular enough to pull redistricting reform along with it.

Mr. Unz's campaign-finance reform is intensely unpopular with California's GOP congressional delegation. Many members think it is an unconstitutional abridgment of political expression, and advantageous to Democrats, partly because business participation in politics would be more restricted than union participation.

So Mr. Unz is proceeding with the campaign-finance reform component, dropping redistricting reform. The Republican delegation has developed its own redistricting initiative for March that would have California's Supreme Court draw district lines and would require any plan to be submitted to referendum.

Cutting lawmakers' pay

The Unz initiative also contains a juicy slab of populist red meat: It would cut state legislators' pay more than 30 percent, would require future pay raises to be submitted to referendum, would cut legislators' per diem payments and would stop their pay if the budget is not passed on time.

Those provisions will provoke state legislators to work overtime against the initiative. However, although the public -- never mind the sentiments poll takers tickle from it -- does not deeply care about either redistricting or campaign-finance reform, Californians have been receptive to campaign reform initiatives, so Mr. Unz's reform probably will win. The probable result of all this will be that Democrats will keep custody of redistricting, and get helpful changes in campaign regulations.

In less than eight months in office Gov. Gray Davis raised $6.4 million for his re-election campaign, five times the record for fund-raising in this period of a governorship. That lends support to Mr. Unz's argument that his proposed limits on political giving and spending will actually help Republicans because contributions follow power, and Democrats now have a lock on power and may keep it forever unless campaign reform picks that lock.

One Republican has hitched his campaign to Mr. Unz's campaign. Last week, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who thinks campaign-finance reform can be the root of many blessings, blessed Mr. Unz's initiative.

The next day his campaign schedule in California listed this event: "Tour of Univision, led by Univision Chairman and CEO A. Jerrold Perenchio."

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/29/99

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