The Times Poll : ‘Brown-Bashing’ Could Backfire on Candidates

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. has been a favorite whipping boy for some political candidates this election year, but the Los Angeles Times Poll has found that “Brown-bashing” actually could turn off many Democratic voters.

Brown’s popularity seems to be on the upswing and although still viewed negatively by the electorate as a whole, he is favorably regarded by a majority of registered Democrats. This could be bad news for such candidates as state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), Assemblyman Alister McAlister (D-Fremont) and even Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who have been trying to attract Democratic support by capitalizing on presumed hostility toward Brown.

In fact, virtually the sole strategy of Garamendi and McAlister in their race against Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles) for the Democratic state controller nomination has been to lambaste Davis for his seven years as Brown’s gubernatorial chief-of-staff. But undecided voters in that contest--and they are many--are favorably impressed with Brown by a nearly 5-3 ratio, as are all Democrats.

Davis, who has amassed a hefty campaign kitty of $1.1 million, holds a slight lead in the race, according to Times Poll interviews with 601 registered Democrats. The results were Davis 20%, Garamendi 16%, McAlister 13%, undecided 51%.

In the race for the GOP controller nomination, three candidates are tightly bunched, according to a survey of 457 registered Republicans. Two candidates were on top with 12% each--state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) and Assemblyman Don A. Sebastiani (R-Sonoma)--followed closely at 10% by San Diego attorney Dan Stanford, former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Former state Sen. Marz Garcia of San Mateo County had 7% and there were 59% undecided.

In another June primary contest, for the GOP lieutenant governor nomination, former Lt. Gov. Mike Curb enjoys a huge lead in his political comeback attempt. Curb was supported by 55% of the Republicans interviewed, compared to only 14% for his lone opponent, state Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora). There were 31% undecided.

Incumbent Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy has no major opposition in the Democratic primary.

Also on the June 3 primary ballot will be a controversial and complex insurance measure, Proposition 51--the so-called “deep pockets” initiative. Basically, it is aimed at reducing the size of personal-injury judgments by limiting damages for pain and suffering to each defendant’s percentage of fault. People are almost evenly divided on the issue, according to interviews with 1,234 registered voters. The results were 44% against, 42% for, 14% undecided.

The Times Poll telephone interviews were conducted between March 22 and March 27. The margin of error for the survey of all registered voters was 3% in either direction. For Democrats the error margin was 4% and for Republicans it was 5%.

The potential ineffectiveness of “Brown bashing” when trying to attract Democratic voters was illustrated when people were asked their impressions of the former governor. The Democrats’ response was 54% favorable, 33% unfavorable, 13% unsure. That is an improvement for Brown over a Times survey last June, when his impression among Democrats was 50% favorable, 42% unfavorable--a net positive change since then of 13 points.

Republican voters, however, remain very hostile to Brown, so his impression among all registered voters is 49% unfavorable, 40% favorable, 11% unsure. Even so, this represents a positive swing of eight points for him since last June.

Brown’s image today, of course, is tarnished compared to what it was at the peak of his popularity during the first term of his governorship. For example, The Times Poll found in March, 1978, that the impression of Brown among Democrats was 61%-32% favorable and among all registered voters it was 52%-41%. Brown’s popularity declined in his second term and in 1982 he wound up losing a race for the U.S. Senate against Republican Pete Wilson.

Deukmejian frequently attacks Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, his Democratic campaign opponent, for surrounding himself with political advisers who held key posts in the Brown Administration--a controversial period when, among other things, Rose Elizabeth Bird was appointed as California’s chief justice. But, according to The Times survey, registered voters who still are undecided in the gubernatorial contest tend to like Brown, with 39% viewing him favorably and 36% unfavorably.

In the controller’s race, Garamendi has charged that Davis will have to answer “for freeways not built and Medflies not killed” when he served Brown. McAlister has called Davis “a Jerry Brown clone . . . a party machine retread of the past.”

But Times Poll Director I.A. Lewis said, “It will be hard to tie a Jerry Brown tin can to Gray Davis. . . . Opponents of Jerry Brown don’t feel so bitter about him now that he has been out of office for over three years.”

More than two-thirds of the Democrats interviewed did not know enough about Davis to have an impression of him. But among those who did, it was 5 to 1 favorable.