Lt. Governor Wins Primary in California
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 3, 1998; Page A01
LOS ANGELES, June 2 Dismissed by opponents in his own party as a bland and cautious career politician, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis captured the Democratic nomination for California governor today after being far outspent by his multimillionaire rivals. Davis will now face Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren in November.
Davis, 55, who came back from third place and who raised money the old-fashioned way, with political donations, beat out airline tycoon Al Checchi and Los Angeles area Rep. Jane Harman, who both used their own personal fortunes and together spent about $45 million on a relentless barrage of television advertisements. Davis spent about $12 million.
Early returns showed Davis as the winner, with 33 percent of the vote. Checchi had 12 percent and Harman had 11 percent, with 12 percent of the precincts reporting. Lungren, 52, virtually unopposed for the GOP nomination, had 37 percent.
Among the nine initiatives presented to voters were two highly charged proposals. The first, Proposition 227, which would effectively end bilingual education in the state where it all began, was overwhelmingly approved. The result for Proposition 226, which would require that union members give their written permission before their dues are used for political campaigns, was too close to call with only a small percentage of votes counted.
Davis's victory sends two distinct signals that big bucks were not enough to buy this election and that voters reacted against Checchi's negative advertisements. Davis's campaign theme was that he had "experience money can't buy." The California race is especially important because the governor will control reapportionment of congressional districts after the 2000 census.
Even before the last vote was cast, Lungren signaled his belief that his Democratic opponent would be Davis. "Gray's been very honest," Lungren said. "He's described himself as a liberal Democrat. I've described myself as a conservative Republican. That's going to define the difference between us."
A jubilant Davis appeared before supporters at a hotel here and said of his coming contest against Lungren, "Now the voters will have a very clear choice in November." He said his top priority would be education. Exit polls showed that education was the first concern cited by voters today. The California public school system, once the envy of the nation, is now considered mediocre.
The bilingual education measure, sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, would limit California's 1.4 million students with limited English skills to one year of "English immersion" classes and then push them into mainstream school work, all in English.
The proposition, while vehemently denounced by many teachers and Latino activists, did not incite the kinds of ethnic tensions generated by past initiatives to do away with affirmative action and services to illegal immigrants.
The labor measure was bitterly fought, with opponents coming from behind by mounting a $20 million television ad campaign against it and Wilson providing $1.2 million of his gubernatorial campaign fund money in support of it. The proposition was seen as a bellwether for other states that are considering similar measures.
If approved, both propositions 226 and 227 were certain to be challenged in court by their opponents, resulting in lengthy cases similar to that which tied up California's controversial ballot initiative against affirmative action programs in state agencies.
Exit polling, commissioned by CNN and the Los Angeles Times, also showed that voters liked the state's first "blanket" primary in which they were able to cast ballots for candidates of any party. Two-thirds of the electorate, according to the exit polls, feel that California is "going in the right direction" amid a rebounding economy and a state budget surplus of $4 billion.
Davis's stunning come-from-behind showing capped a record-breaking campaign splurge of $100 million worth of television advertisements in statewide races of GOP and Democratic contenders for governor and the Senate, and to influence the outcome of the ballot initiatives on bilingual education and the use of union dues for political campaigns.
The races featured huge TV buys, lavish attention on Latino voters and two high-profile propositions, which, if successful here, could be replicated around the nation. But more than anything else, this was a political season dominated by millionaires and their money, particularly so because most California television stations refused to run any real news about the campaigns until the very last days.
One lone station, KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, made a last-minute stab at informing the voters by holding a live debate among three of the four major gubernatorial candidates on Monday evening, barely 12 hours before the polls opened.
Davis, who had been in third place until recent weeks in most polls, spent the last few days here proclaiming himself over and over the man with the "experience money can't buy," an obvious dig at Checchi, who spent about $40 million of his own money on his first run for political office, and Harman, who spent about $15 million on the race, much from her fortune of $200 million.
"It hasn't been a model for California, or anywhere else," said Gov. Pete Wilson (R), of the huge amounts spent on 30-second spots. Wilson spent close to $30 million to win reelection in 1994. "Perhaps those who have spent that money and lost can find a lesson in it that you can't buy an election," he said.
Nor did Harman, who repeatedly reminded voters that she was the lone woman running in a field of "macho" men, catch fire with California voters. Harman briefly overtook Checchi in the polls but dropped and never recovered after Checchi's ad attacks against her. Those ads, however, proved equally damaging to Checchi.
In a Senate race largely overshadowed by the gubernatorial campaign, millionaire businessman Darrell Issa and state Treasurer Matt Fong, both Republicans, went down to the wire. With 8 percent of the vote counted, Fong led Issa 23 percent to 20 percent in their battle for a chance to unseat seemingly vulnerable Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in November.
Even though Issa spent more than $7 million of his fortune on television advertising a record for a Senate primary anywhere the contest remained off the screen for most voters until the final week, when allegations surfaced that the 44-year-old car alarm magnate's rise to wealth had been accompanied by questionable events, including a fire at one of his businesses that at one time was suspected to be arson and a claim by a former associate that he attempted to intimidate the associate by displaying a gun.
Issa vigorously denied the allegations, but Fong, who had been outspent by Issa by 5 to 1, gained some ground by challenging his opponent's assertions that his Horatio Alger-like business success more than offset his lack of elective experience.
For her part, Boxer ignored the fray, acting as though she were unopposed in a closed primary, instead raising money and saving her funds for the November election.
Among the 52 congressional races, four open seats ensured there will be new faces in the House's California delegation next year, including Harman's district and that of longtime Rep. Esteban Edward Torres (D), who is retiring. Reps. Vic Fazio (D) and Frank Riggs (R) also are retiring. Torres's seat is the only one of the four reasonably certain not to change parties.
Among other House races attracting attention was former GOP representative Robert K. Dornan's bid for a chance to run against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D), who, Dornan claims, "stole" his seat in 1996 by illegally registering noncitizens to vote. Dornan faced three opponents: attorney Lisa Hughes, Superior Court Judge Jim Gray and retired engineer Cornelius Coronado.
Also, Rep. Jay Kim (R), who pleaded guilty in March to federal campaign violations, was forbidden to campaign in his district and forced to wear an electronic monitoring device around his ankle while in Washington, sought to fend off three challengers in a long-distance campaign run by aides. In early returns, he trailed his chief opponent, state Assemblyman Gary G. Miller.
Another closely watched race was that of former governor and three-time presidential hopeful Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., who faced 10 opponents in the race for mayor of Oakland and appeared likely to win the majority needed to avoid a runoff in November.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company