LOS ANGELES -- Democratic Party officials, trying to derail the growing national movement to limit legislative terms, are considering using one of their oldest adversaries, former president Ronald Reagan, to turn voters against two key initiatives on California's Nov. 6 ballot.
Veteran Democratic legislators, fearing for both their jobs and their control of the legislature with the initiatives leading 2 to 1 in the polls, hope that statements against term limits by Reagan and other prominent Republicans, such as former president Gerald R. Ford and outgoing California Gov. George Deukmejian, will stop this year's electoral flash flood.
Oklahoma passed a term-limiting ballot measure Sept. 18. Similar measures are on the November ballots here and in Colorado. Political activists in several other states have shown interest in the issue, and efforts to limit federal legislative terms are accelerating.
Sources close to Democratic leaders in the California legislature said Senate Minority Leader Ken Maddy (R-Morro Bay) has agreed to ask Reagan and Ford to help defeat Propositions 131 and 140. Campaign organizers also are interested in enlisting the help of prominent Democrats such as California gubernatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein, but they acknowledge the issue may hinder her own campaign.
Her Republican opponent, Sen. Pete Wilson, is still undecided on the issue but is being urged by some Republicans to endorse term limits. He could then use the issue to highlight Feinstein's links to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), a 26-year legislative veteran whose maneuvers to stymie legislation he opposes have fueled much of the pro-initiative sentiment.
The No on 131 and 140 forces are preparing television commercials designed to reverse a surge of public support for term limits fueled by inaction and corruption in Sacramento and widespread distress, particularly among Republican voters, over failure to dislodge Democratic incumbents. An endorsement from Reagan "couldn't hurt," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School. "He's Mr. Citizen Politician. There's an image there."
Harvey Rosenfield, chairman of pro-131 Voter Revolt, said he doubted voters would be influenced on this issue by any politician, no matter how popular. "People like that would be perceived as being part of the problem and not part of the solution," he said.
A Los Angeles Times poll released Sunday showed Proposition 131, which would limit state legislators to 12 consecutive years and statewide officers to eight consecutive years, leading 50 to 34 percent. Proposition 140, which would place lifetime limits of eight years on state senators and statewide officers and six years on assembly members, was leading 55 to 28 percent.
Mark DiCamillo, managing editor of Mervin Field's California Poll, said other initiatives have seen similar leads evaporate in the heat of last-minute television advertising and negative editorials. "In an initiative campaign, the public often doesn't come to grips with the issue until the last couple weeks before the election," he said. But the term-limiting idea fits so well with the public mood, he added, "it will be tough to turn back."
Beverly Hills-based BAD Campaigns, the political consulting firm of Michael Berman, brother of Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), and Carl D'Agostino, successfully turned back two redistricting initiatives on the June ballot with 30-second spots labeling them foul creations of special interests. The two men also are running the No on 131 and 140 campaign, and they have suggested a similar theme.
There is trouble in Sacramento, the consultants acknowledged in a report on the campaign, "but 131 and 140 would make government in California even worse. Each would inevitably . . . increase reliance on special interest money" and "unfairly benefit the interests of the wealthy" while trampling on "free speech rights."
Mark Weinberg, spokesman for Reagan, said the former president has not been asked to help with the campaign but has expressed his opposition to term limits and frequently called for repeal of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits the president to two terms. Ford spokeswoman Penny Circle said Ford also is opposed to term limits in principle but was so irritated by actions of the Democratic leadership in Sacramento that he was tempted to vote for the initiatives anyway.
Deukmejian has yet to announce a position on term limits. A spokeswoman for Feinstein said she agreed to lend her name to the No on 131 and 140 campaign but has not been asked to do more.
Michael Berman, famous in California politics as a political demographer and tactician, has declined to discuss his campaign strategy but recently indicated close agreement with an attack on term limits written by Jeffe for the Los Angeles Times. Jeffe called term limits a "scorched earth" tactic for reforming politics and warned "neither initiative guarantees that when the rascals are thrown out, they won't be replaced with another set of rascals -- or worse."
"How can less well-off candidates, people with less flexible employment, workers who need to be vested in a pension, take time off to dabble in legislative service for six years?" Jeffe asked. "Will legislative service again become a form of noblesse oblige?"
One legislative source said initiative opponents will argue that future legislators and governors should not be handicapped with term limits just because the current Democratic legislature and Republican governor could not find common ground.
If such arguments or endorsements from former presidents don't work, initiative opponents said, they are prepared to heap abuse on initiative supporters, particularly the acerbic coauthor of Proposition 140, Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum.
As BAD Campaigns put it, "Perhaps Schabarum envisions a state government for California that performs . . . as efficiently as that of Los Angeles County, . . . the gang-violence and cocaine capital of America, the world leader in air pollution, and the most overbuilt megalopolis in America."