Advertisement
Share

Senate Scrutiny May Rattle Lungren’s Confidence

Times Staff Writer

Rep. Daniel E. Lungren has always been a confident man.

So it was with a sense of unshakable optimism that the Long Beach Republican accepted Gov. George Deukmejian’s nomination to be state treasurer--remarking at one point that he could no more contemplate the possibility of defeat than could an athlete facing a big game.

In recent weeks, however, the news out of both houses of the Legislature has been discouraging at best for the governor’s nominee. With the Senate confirmation hearings set to begin on Tuesday, Democrats who control the upper house are preparing to give Lungren plenty of reason to question his confidence.

A recent survey by top Senate Democrats indicated that as many as 19 already have made up their minds to vote against Lungren or are leaning that way. That is only two shy of the 21 votes needed to reject him in the 40-member house, where 24 of the members are Democrats.

Advertisement

Senate GOP Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno predicted that the chances of confirmation could hinge on as little as one vote. “I think it’s going to be close,” Maddy said, adding he has not heard of any Democrat who even is leaning toward Lungren. “The Democrats have imposed an extremely good code of silence. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

If there were a 20-20 tie, Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy could break the deadlock. Senate Democratic floor leader Barry Keene of Benicia said this scenario is possible because there are “about five Democrats who are undecided and probably won’t make up their minds until after the hearings.”

Deukmejian remains outwardly optimistic, saying he is “not yet” ready to concede defeat in the Senate. “I’m confident he’ll get confirmed. I’m relying on the fairness and the objectivity of enough of the senators I have respect for,” the governor told The Times last week.

But Deukmejian also acknowledged he had become “disturbed” over the way the opposition is taking shape. “I’m not saying I expect every Democrat to vote to confirm every single person that I name,” he said. “But I do think, you know, they should have some very good sound reasons for voting against--and not just voting against the person because I proposed him.”

Some Democrats, the governor said, began taking shots at Lungren even though they “hadn’t even met the man, hadn’t even talked to him, hadn’t even found out anything about him.”

In a demonstration of their willingness to do battle with the governor, Senate Democrats in the last month rejected two of Deukmejian’s appointees because of what they said were philosophical disagreements and are threatening to do the same to a third nominee.

One Republican insider who asked to remain anonymous characterized those votes as “almost like a test to see how far (Senate Democrats) can go. To the extent that this is allowed to continue, it tends to embolden them.”

Stirring up the political caldron even more has been a steady drumbeat of harsh rhetoric from Democratic leader Keene, who has called Lungren a “disaster for women” because of his opposition to federal family planning grants. Keene compared Lungren to James Watt, President Reagan’s controversial former interior secretary, and publicly derided his nomination as the governor’s “payoff to the ultra-right of his party.”

Advertisement

“I believe we will reject him in the Senate,” Keene confidently predicted. In a recent interview he also acknowledged Democratic fears that Deukmejian is trying to build Lungren into a political star with a far-right agenda.

Added Keene: “My instincts are very strong that this is all part of a scenario to provide for a successor to Deukmejian that fits a certain description, ultra-right, young, smart and politically capable.”

Ironically, Deukmejian in his interview with The Times, used almost the same words to explain his perception of the growing opposition to his nominee.

Democrats, he said, realize Lungren is “a very capable, very bright, very articulate, attractive individual and I suspect that the opposition is really that they’re concerned he may become a major political figure in California.” Playing against this backdrop is a strong disagreement between the governor and the Legislature’s top Democrats over the mechanics of confirming or rejecting Lungren.

Advertisement

Citing legal opinions by Democratic Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and the Legislature’s own lawyer, these Democrats say Lungren can be defeated if one house or the other votes to reject him or if a motion to confirm Lungren falls short of a majority.

Deukmejian, however, believes Lungren may take office unless he is rejected by both houses of the Legislature. He also maintains that his nominee cannot be defeated merely because a motion to confirm him falls short of a majority, but only if a majority of lawmakers in both houses actually cast votes against him.

Effect of Ruling

Since Republicans are firmly in support of Lungren and Democrats are split, it would be much more difficult for opponents to gather the majority of “no” votes that Deukmejian says are needed for rejection.

Advertisement

If the Legislature does not act by Feb. 29, Lungren may automatically assume the treasurer’s post, replacing Democrat Jesse M. Unruh, who died last year.

Aides to the governor have said that Deukmejian intends to have Lungren take the oath of office immediately after the deadline so long as his criteria for confirmation is met. As a result of the dispute, Democrats and Republicans alike are predicting that Lungren’s fate is likely to be decided in the courts, rather than by the Legislature.

“That’s a real possibility,” said Maddy. “I don’t think it will be resolved on the 29th of February, we’re coming close to that conclusion.”

The Assembly wrapped up its Lungren hearings last month. But the 19-member select committee which heard the testimony indefinitely delayed an advisory vote after Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said he did not want to prejudice the outcome of the hearings in the Senate.

Advertisement

Assembly Outlook

Brown has carefully kept his distance from the battle over Lungren. By his own count, however, there are too few opponents in the Assembly to block the confirmation.

The fact that Brown is facing a rebellion within his own ranks by a dissident group of five Democrats makes it less likely that he will want to pick a fight with Deukmejian. Some Assembly Democrats also have privately suggested that they see no point in opposing Lungren unless hearings uncover evidence of a character flaw or malfeasance in office.

The same factors do not seem to be playing as strongly in the Senate. Sen. President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) survived a challenge to his leadership last year but the failed attempt to oust him instead seemed to solidify his power.

Advertisement

Historically, Roberti has been more willing to battle Deukmejian and neither he nor other Senate Democrats seemed to have been injured politically by those squabbles.

Unlike the Assembly, where the confirmation hearings began with almost no preparation, the five-member Senate Rules Committee, which will take testimony on Lungren for three consecutive days, has carefully prepared for its hearings.

Controversial Report

Much of the questioning is expected to center on a detailed report prepared by the Senate Office of Research that lays the groundwork for criticizing Lungren’s political views.

Advertisement

The report, produced from material gathered by a private consultant at a cost of $15,000, was distributed late last week to Rules Committee members.

It carefully delineates the duties of the treasurer’s office and reports on any vote or action taken by Lungren that might be considered relevant. Speeches Lungren made on the House floor, even newsletters mailed to constituents, are analyzed as to how they might bear on Lungren’s decisions as treasurer.

The report concludes that Lungren’s five terms in the House of Representatives and his experience as an attorney “help qualify him for the job of state treasurer.” However, the report also says Lungren “lacks in-depth experience or education” to carry out some of the office’s duties.

Specifically, it criticizes him for being “committed to reducing the role of the public sector,” citing his opposition to providing federal support for public works projects, low- and moderate-income housing, education, environmental protection and other programs.

Advertisement

Lungren also is expected to come under fire for his opposition to paying reparations to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.

Could Have Saved Money

Lungren sought to downplay the report’s conclusions, saying, “I could have saved them $15,000 by admitting I am a conservative Republican who works hard.” In a barb aimed at Senate Democrats, Lungren added that he was “fascinated,” by the Senate’s use of taxpayer money to produce the report.

He also strongly defended his conservative voting record and charged that Senate Democrats appear to be looking for a candidate who is “mediocre and has no firmly held convictions. It’s like the old Western movie where you walk in to the bar and there’s a sign that says ‘check your guns at the door.’ I don’t think when you are in political life, you check your conscience at the door.”

Advertisement

Keene, however, said confirming Lungren would mean “giving to someone on the extreme right a high visibility position . . . He is a strong, principled conservative who does not deviate from that position. He would use funds at his disposal and the platform at his disposal to (give) advantage (to) those causes against Democrats.”

The issue of fund raising is a critical one to Keene and other Democrats who witnessed how Unruh built the office into a powerful institution and a potent position from which to raise campaign money. They fear Lungren will do the same, raising millions of dollars for a future run for governor or giving it to Republican lawmakers in tight races.

That concern was highlighted late last month when The Times disclosed that Maddy had sent a letter to 50,000 California Republicans in which he noted that Lungren, as the only Republican besides Deukmejian to hold statewide office, would “be of critical importance in fund raising to help elect more Republicans to office.”

‘Irritant’ to Democrats

Advertisement

Roberti said the letter has become “an irritant” to several Democrats. Keene, meanwhile, has introduced a bill that would pare back the power of the office and, therefore, its fund-raising potential. But he has put the measure on hold partly because he believes Lungren will be defeated.

Should he be rejected, Democrats are hoping Deukmejian would turn to Maddy, a moderate Republican who was the governor’s second choice for the post.

But sources close to the Deukmejian Admininstration indicate that the governor would be more likely to go outside the Legislature once again for his choice.

Maddy agreed. “I’m not so sure the governor wouldn’t reach out and find someone outside of politics,” he said. “I certainly am cautioning any Democratic friend of mine not to vote (against Lungren) thinking I would get the job.”

Advertisement

Also looming on the horizon is the question of whether Lungren would agree to continue the fight if his confirmation ends up in the courts.

Election Deadline

To hold on to his congressional seat he must file for reelection by March 11. Although Lungren could campaign for the seat even after taking the treasurer’s oath of office, that could endanger his prospects for reelection and he might end up with no job at all.

Deukmejian said he has not discussed the prospect of a court battle with his nominee. And Lungren, who earlier told the Assembly committee he must think foremost of the welfare of his family, also declined to speculate about that possibility.

Advertisement

“I haven’t given consideration to that,” Lungren said. “I am too busy trying to get 41 votes in one house and 21 in the other to worry about what I would do in the event I don’t get there.”


Advertisement