Hard to Say No

So far it would seem that the major problem that legislative Democrats have with Rep. Daniel E. Lungren is that he is young, bright, attractive and a man with a record of not-insignificant accomplishment in Congress. If he is seated as the California treasurer, those attributes would add up to a tailor-made campaign for governor in 1994, if not sooner. Since Lungren is a Republican, this prospect does not make Democrats drool with anticipation.

As the Legislature pondered Gov. George Deukmejian's nomination of Lungren to become treasurer, the question for Democrats seemed to be whether they should serve up the treasurer's office on a silver platter to the GOP as a showcase for fresh new talent. The real question, however, should be whether there is a compelling policy reason or matter of personal character for the Legislature to reject Lungren's appointment to the vacancy created by the death of Democrat Jesse M. Unruh. While legislative hearings into Lungren's record and views will continue into next month, no such reason has surfaced so far.

Certainly Lungren is a very conservative Republican. If Deukmejian had wanted to appease the Democrats, he could have selected the more moderate state Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) and won Maddy's confirmation with nary a disparaging word. But a variance in shades of political thinking is not justification for rejection.

Lungren does not have specific training in finance, but neither state law nor the Constitution sets any special criteria for holding the treasurer's office. The treasurer is a political position, not a technical bureaucratic slot. What is important is the sort of leadership that the official offers.

There are broad portions of Lungren's congressional record that certainly could be better--particularly in the area of equal rights, but also in taxation and finance. Among those is Lungren's vote against a $1.25-billion reparations award to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II. But it is unfair to construe his vote as prima facie evidence of racism; 140 other House members voted against the bill.

On the other hand, Lungren toiled diligently to win passage of the immigration-reform bill, working out bipartisan agreement on some critical issues in a fashion that was not to the liking of Republican business leaders and conservatives. The authors of the respected "Almanac of American Politics" observed that Lungren's work was a refutation "to those who say that divided government and ideology-minded politicians cannot respond affirmatively to society's challenges."

There are legitimate questions for the Legislature to raise dealing primarily with how he would conduct the treasurer's office. Lungren told lawmakers that he would carry out legislative policy even if it conflicts with his own political beliefs. That is the law, of course. Unruh demonstrated that being treasurer can involve far more than a routine performance of ministerial duties. The leadership exerted can have a profound effect on what the office accomplishes, like assistance for minority groups. But not all that Unruh did was extolled by all Democrats, including his sometimes questioned fund-raising tactics.

The treasurer's office is not rightly "the province of Democrats," as Senate President pro tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) has claimed. Unruh, a Democrat, won a four-year term in 1986. But fate cut that short, and the state Constitution gives the governor the primary role in filling the vacancy.

Lungren, reelected to his Long Beach-based district with 73% of the vote in both 1984 and 1986, clearly has been representative of his largely white, affluent district. If confirmed by the Legislature as state treasurer, his challenge will be to adapt his policies so that they fairly reflect the diversity of a statewide constituency of 27 million Californians. And so far critics have not presented a solid case for rejection.

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