LOS ANGELES -- Unaccustomed to the bludgeonings of fate, California, which for so long has been America's beckoning horizon, is now, like the rest of the nation, experiencing life as ODTAA -- one damned thing after another. The electorate's reaction to an intensifying drizzle of depressing developments will decide California's gubernatorial election. On that election will turn not only the future of the California nation-state (a GNP soon to be larger than those of all but four nations) but also of this nation.
The state's buoyancy, sustained by belief in "California exceptionalism" -- faith that problems crossing the continent from the decadent East will die in the desert somewhere east of Bakersfield -- is fading. Two items, culled from much such news, tell why.
During the Depression the migration of Oklahomans to California produced John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." Now Oklahoma has opened an Orange County office to lure California businesses burdened by congestion, high housing costs and other consequences of galloping growth. (Southern California's typical house costs 215 percent of the national average. In 1986 the median price of a new detached house was $152,000. By mid-1989 it was $369,000.)
An environmental agency regulating the Los Angeles basin's 14.5 million residents (more than in any state but New York and Texas) proposes banning some backyard barbecue equipment (lighter fluid, pre-soaked briquettes) that on a summer day produce four tons of air pollutants. Scarcity -- fiscal (tax revenues) and social (housing, highways) and natural (clean air and, after four dry years, water) -- is everywhere.
In the 1980s California got one-quarter of the nation's population growth. It was as though all North Carolinians (5.8 million) moved in. Forty percent of America's population growth was from foreign immigrants, and one in four became Californians. Today California is growing by 700,000 (a South Dakota) a year but commensurate economic growth, something previously taken for granted, no longer can be.
One-fifth of Southern California's GNP depends directly on defense spending. By 1988, one-fifth of the defense budget was spent here, sustaining 10,000 subcontractors. The search for affordable housing has caused many people to commute more than 100 miles round trip for jobs that now are vanishing. "Oklahoma or bust"?
The voters' choice next month for a governor to cope with all this matters also to the other 49 states. The choice between Republican Sen. Pete Wilson and Democrat Dianne Feinstein -- two 57-year-old former mayors, he of San Diego, she of San Francisco -- will be the most important non-presidential election of the first half of the 1990s, because it may decisively influence the 1992 presidential election.
Democrats, losers of five of the last six and seven of the last 10 presidential elections, probably cannot realistically hope to win the White House without winning California. This is so because Republicans are overwhelmingly favored to carry 147 Southern-Sun Belt electoral votes. If Republicans also carry California's new total of 54 (20 percent of the 270 needed), then Democrats must carry 80 percent of the remainder, an insuperable challenge. Thus whichever candidate wins three weeks hence will instantly become what athletes call an "impact player" in the game of presidential politics.
Furthermore, this gubernatorial election will decide which party does the gerrymandering to add California's seven congressional seats (the loss will come from three Democratic target states: New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois). California in the 1990s will have a larger percentage of the House of Representatives (12 percent) than any state since New York (13 percent) in the 1860s. Even if Wilson winds up in Sacramento to do unto Democrats what they did unto Republicans a decade ago (capturing perhaps 10 seats by drawing district lines), that will not guarantee Republicans the ability to wrest control of the House of Representatives. But if Feinstein does the drawing, the year 2000 almost certainly will be the 46th consecutive year of Democratic control of the House.
The prodigious stakes of this election, as well as the inherently superior satisfactions of executive power, explain why 14 of the 16 former governors -- of both parties -- currently serving in the Senate counseled Wilson (when he asked) to make the race. So now, at the end of a campaign day, his voice, like the rest of him seems worn, as who would not be in a fourth consecutive year of virtually constant campaigning. (He waged a two-year campaign for re-election to the Senate in 1988.) So far, he is winning.
The latest Field poll shows him ahead by five points, to which he says another three should be added because the poll sample was not weighted to reflect opinion of those most likely to vote. The dynamics of this race will be discussed in a subsequent column.