The rift between Senate Democrats and gubernatorial hopeful John K. Van de Kamp widened Friday as Majority Leader Barry Keene accused the Democratic attorney general of pandering to the polls in an "opportunistic and unstatesmanlike" manner.
Although saying he is a Van de Kamp supporter, Keene (D-Benicia) complained that in his quest for the governorship the attorney general has attacked the integrity of the Legislature and is trying to bypass lawmakers through the initiative process.
"I can accept and agree with reasoned criticism of legislative shortcomings," Keene said in a letter to Van de Kamp. "Your rhetoric has gone far beyond that. It seems geared toward improving your position in the polls rather than the public's position in the decision-making process."
In recent months, Van de Kamp has angered legislators by proposing an initiative that would put a 12-year limit on legislators' tenure in office and restrict the kinds of outside income lawmakers can receive.
And in his campaign, he appears to be running as much against the Legislature as he is against either of his opponents, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, and Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson.
But Van de Kamp spokesman Duane Peterson sought Friday to play down the spat with Keene, saying, "The senator and the attorney general have worked together on a number of issues over the years and now they have a difference of opinion on this one issue."
Keene was particularly irritated by Van de Kamp's statement earlier in the week that a legislative ballot proposal to improve the Legislature's ethics was flawed because it opens the door for a pay raise.
Van de Kamp said at a breakfast with the Times' Sacramento Bureau that the plan to create an independent salary commission to set legislators' pay was likely to spell defeat for the proposed constitutional amendment when it goes before voters in June. He suggested that legislators sabotaged their ethics measure by including the pay raise panel.
Keene said in an interview that Van de Kamp's statement was "the final straw" and prompted him to fire off his letter--marked "personal"--to the attorney general.
"The recent attack on an ongoing, earnest, bipartisan effort at legislative reform was especially unfair," said the letter, which was provided to reporters.
The Democratic Senate leader charged that Van de Kamp has launched a "two-pronged attack on representative government" that combines verbal criticisms with ballot measures that circumvent legislators.
As part of his campaign platform, the attorney general is sponsoring an unprecedented three initiatives designed to improve the Legislature's ethics, raise corporate taxes to combat drugs and curb pollution of the land, air and ocean.
"The need for the initiatives stems from the inability of the Legislature to address three of the most critical issues facing the state," Peterson said. "It's hard to expect an institution to reform itself, so it's not that surprising that governmental reforms should have to come from outside."
But Keene said the attorney general's reliance on the initiative process sends a "bad message" to the public and suggests that Van de Kamp would be a governor who would have difficulty cooperating with the Legislature.
"I want a Democratic governor as much as anybody," Keene said. "But I don't want another governor who can't get along with the Legislature. If you run against the Legislature, maybe you can get elected but you can't govern."