The Battle for California Looms
By William Booth
California has done it again. The most populous and powerful state in the union has remade itself.
And by deciding to move its presidential primaries to the early-bird date of March 7, 2000, California will finally exert the kind of influence on nominating a candidate it does in electing one. Now dominated by Democrats after years of Republican rule, the state is going to be the arena for the coming battle for the great, satisfied but fickle, Moderate Middle.
The old issues? Crime and taxes. The new ones? Maybe not guns or the Ten Commandments, Washington's latest obsessions, but the kinds of challenges that your average California suburbanite wants someone to fix: traffic, sprawl, parks, schools, health care and nursing homes.
Or what one GOP analyst called "the postmaterialist, postmodern value orientation." That's California-speak for: livability.
It is often written that California, and not Disneyland in Anaheim, is the real "Tomorrowland," where America reinvents its future, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Over the coming year, California is set to play an outsized role in deciding the direction of the nation, influencing not only who will win the White House and Congress at the beginning of the new century, but how the country faces the new "quality of life" agendas shaped by the dominance of the baby boom generation at a moment of incredible economic prosperity.
The big, interesting questions -- Who are we as a people and where are we going? -- will be answered, at least in part, here.
The old California of just a few years past is fading away. In the blink of a single decade, the aerospace and defense industries have been transformed. Cold Warriors are now making titanium golf clubs in the seaside city of Carlsbad. The multimedia, entertainment, Internet industries dominate with $4 of every $10 of venture capital spent in California.
One of the hottest jobs? Animation.
One of the biggest manufacturers? Toys.
One of the largest slices of the private sector in the Los Angeles Basin is small businesses run by immigrants and their children. The traditional downtown power brokers are still around, but their clout is diluted.
So is the power of the two parties.
Nixon's Silent Majority and the Reagan Democrats who built the coalition that put Republicans in office, from the state Assembly to the governorship to Congress and the White House, are becoming as hard to find here as parking spots at the local minimall.
The Reagan Democrats are being replaced by Soccer Moms as the vote most sought, but the moms now are as likely to have last names like Kwachukwu and Petrossian, Chung and Rodriguez.
The suburbs rule. But the suburbs are not the traditional enclaves of whites. They are now called by demographers the new "ethnoburbs." Latinos, who have doubled in the electorate in a decade, are the fastest-growing ethnic group.
Out here, Angry White Males are now Content White Males, with Californians telling pollsters they feel upbeat.
But even as Republicans speak openly of their "annihilation" in last year's state elections, California is still very much up for grabs politically, particularly when it comes to choosing a president.
Consider: In the latest Los Angeles Times poll, in the clash of two scions of wealth and privilege who want the Moderate Middle, Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) beat Vice President Gore 49 to 45 percent, a statistical dead heat.
Think of California politics as a wave. After years of riding the big ones, Republicans here experienced the political equivalent of a wipeout in 1998.
Democrats now control the governor's office and both houses of the California legislature. Republican strategists fear, without hyperbole, that it is possible for California to become a one-party state, like Hawaii, with a few scattered regional strongholds still defended by GOP stalwarts.
Gov. Gray Davis, a tenaciously centrist Democrat, was almost written off as too dull to take the prize in a state where voters get most of their information about candidates from poll-tested, hyper-produced, often misleading 30-second TV spots.
But Davis defeated Republican opponent Dan Lungren, the antiabortion attorney general who ran on "character" and crime, by almost 20 percentage points.
"Clearly, we're in a hole," said state Sen. Jim Brulte, widely seen as the brains behind the Republicans in Sacramento. "Not an insurmountable hole, but a hole."
Many Republicans blame Lungren and his hapless campaign. But that is only a part of the picture. Bernd Schwieren, an analyst for the California GOP, concluded that Lungren, with his conservative appeals about character and crime and taxes, was searching for an electorate that had vanished.
"He failed to realize California had changed so much that the voters he thought he was talking to no longer existed in sufficient numbers to win," Schwieren said.
"He was talking to ghosts."
Among registered voters, Democrats now have a sizable edge. And upon closer inspection, it just gets worse for the GOP.
Among new voters, Republican registration is an elevator dropping through the basement. Between 1992 and 1999, Republican registration fell to 35 percent. Democrats have lost registered voters too, but are at 47 percent.
Yet even more important is this: The fastest-growing group of voters is the "Decline to Staters." One in five citizens now declare themselves independent.
Dean Tipps, executive director of the union for service employees in Sacramento, describes the new Californians as members of a "mass society," which is highly diverse, extremely mobile, decidedly nonideological and weary of partisan politics.
What they care about is results.
It is a simple test, Tipps said. "They want to know who solves the problems and makes their lives better."
The New Citizens
The white bread and bologna suburbs of Burbank were once the butt of Johnny Carson jokes, a happily bland enclave built around lifetime employment in the aerospace industries. But Lockheed Martin Corp., the defense contractor, closed its doors here in 1990. The big bosses now are the movie and television studios.
Latinos, Asian Americans and blacks now make up a quarter of the population of Assemblyman Scott Wildman's district, and immigrant Armenians from Lebanon, Iran and the former Soviet Union dominate among all ethnicities.
"It's where the rest of the country is heading," said Wildman, a Democrat who represents Burbank and Glendale.
Wildman won his seat in 1996 by 192 votes. Two years later he won by a landslide. The area is represented in Congress by Rep. James E. Rogan (R), one of the House "managers" who tried to convince the Senate that President Clinton should be removed from office. Rogan squeaked back into office in 1998 with a tiny majority of the vote. He is now among a handful of Republicans in Congress being targeted by Democrats for defeat in 2000.
Pam Corradi, chairwoman of the Republican Central Committee for the 43rd state Assembly district that Wildman represents, says that if the GOP does not nominate more "rational Republicans," or moderates, the voters will never come back.
"We can't continue to be a viable party without minorities and women," Corradi said. "We have to realize that if we remain the party of white males, we're gonna lose every time."
Corradi was a force at a state GOP convention in February that sought to remove opposition to abortion from the party platform and to elect leaders from the moderate wing of the party. They lost, but just barely. The new head of the state Republican Party is John McGraw, a conservative who considers abortion a central issue in the state.
This is very bad, Corradi says.
Some of her more moderate fellow Republicans have begun to call the GOP the "GAG party," meaning they are fixated on Gays, Abortion and Guns, which they fear dooms them to minority status in California.
"The common wisdom, the party line among Republicans, is that the demographics have changed so much that these people are all Democrats. But I don't believe that," Corradi said. "Our message is as good as ever. But we need new blood."
Corradi fears that the GOP idea of attracting Latinos, for example, is "we're going to throw a taco party!" In that course, she believes, lies failure.
She is not alone. Sen. Brulte, the GOP brain in Sacramento, recently pledged to raise funds only for Republican candidates who are women or minorities.
For years, the "sleeping giant" of the Latino vote was always on the horizon. Now it is reality.
At some point during the year 2000 campaigns, whites as a percentage of the overall California population will drop below 50 percent, transforming California into the first major "minority majority" state.
In 1998, whites were 74 percent of the electorate. Latinos now account for about 14 percent of voters, and growing, with some of the most aggressive voter registration efforts in the nation.
And many Latinos, despite their recent love affair with Democrats following the anti-immigrant wedge politics of former governor Pete Wilson (R), are also possible Republicans.
Days after his inauguration in 1992, Wilson faced punishing budget shortfalls. When he introduced Proposition 187, which would have denied most social services to illegal immigrants, he says he did so because the state was broke.
Voters approved Proposition 187. But many people today think the measure was too extreme. And it soured the state's Latinos and others on the Republicans.
There are now Latino Republicans in the state Assembly, although the two most powerful in the state -- Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (who is eyeing a run for Los Angeles mayor) -- are Democrats.
"That's the new politics," said Field Institute pollster Mark DiCamillo. "Latinos."
But there is more to the new California voter than ethnicity.
In 1998 exit polls taken by the Los Angeles Times and more recent surveys by the Field Institute and others, there emerges a snapshot that shows an electorate that is savvy, cynical and media-wise; optimistic, practical and centrist.
They think politicians look most after their own hides; they like gun control and doctor-assisted suicide; they are tolerant toward homosexuals, but not fans of gay marriage.
In the last election, at least half of the voters identified themselves as "moderate."
But less than four of 10 Californians follow public affairs closely. Why? They are either too busy with their own lives or they think a lot of what goes on in Sacramento and Washington is irrelevant. Remarkably, two of three Californians do not think it matters "a great deal" which party runs the country.
"They seem to be saying, if it's a moderate Democrat, okay," said pollster DiCamillo. "Or a moderate Republican, well, that's okay with them too."
The New Economy
When Clinton became president, downsized workers, fearful of natural and human disasters of almost biblical scale -- from mudslides to wildfires to earthquakes to riots -- were pouring out of the state. Now they are pouring back in.
In the 1990s, California was first into the recession, and the last to get out. The Golden State was a place of foreclosures, pink slips, deep cuts in social services, education, parks and infrastructure. There was a lot of fear too.
Those days are over. The biggest challenge facing the new governor is how to spend $4.5 billion in revenue surpluses.
The main reason is that the economy, the seventh largest in the world with a gross state product of $1 trillion, is surging again.
The defense industry, once one-third of the economy, has declined and stabilized at about 9 percent. The new economic engines are high-tech, biotech, software, multimedia, entertainment and the Internet. And the state is producing millionaires like avocados.
Stephen Levy, the economist at the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, points out that the year 2000 presidential contest will be the first in almost a decade when Californians truly feel confident about the economy.
The good times have encouraged Californians to once again approve state and local bonds to improve education, buy parklands, protect endangered species, build highways, rebuild the water system.
But this renewed confidence brings new concerns. Levy points out that the standard workweek has been slowly eroding in the state, that mom and dad are working longer, odder hours.
The economist, and others, see more parents who don't see each other, because of swing shifts and long commutes. Everybody is making good money, but they feel their quality of life is not keeping up with their bank accounts.
What many Californians seem to want, say many of those interviewed for this article, is a politics that improves their lives.
The New Issues
When Gov. Wilson last year was pushing his proposal to reduce the registration fees that motorists pay for their cars, state Senate leader John Burton, a liberal Democrat, thought he detected a paradigm shift.
"I never got a call" from constituents about the tax cut, he said. Not one.
Meaning? "Times are good. Nobody gives a damn" about $100 in car taxes.
"In the first half of the decade," explains Republican state Sen. Brulte, "we were in survival mode. The ship of state was foundering."
Now? "Now we're in a period called 'quality of life,' " Brulte said.
Exit polls reveal that only 18 percent of the electorate listed crime as their main concern. Californians are more fearful of children with guns than carjackers.
Their highest priority? Education.
In the state that started the tax revolt with Proposition 13, now seven of 10 Californians support higher taxes, as long as the revenue goes toward the number one issue in California: improving the once-vigorous public schools that now fail to graduate one-third of their high school students.
Added to the quality of life issues are: suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, HMO reform, good housing closer to work, more parks and playgrounds, better nursing homes for aging boomer parents and health care for the uninsured.
In his dissection of the last election, GOP analyst Schwieren concluded that "the unprecedented wealth and prosperity of baby-boomers and their children has led to a shift in their value structure." Meaning what? Schwieren and many others -- Democrats, Republicans and Decline to Staters -- are not exactly sure.
What it means is this is going to be a very interesting election at a moment when America's prosperity prompts the question: With all this money and peace and contentment, what next?
© 1999 The Washington Post Company