The fates, political and otherwise, have not been particularly kind to Assemblywoman Carol Bentley recently in her special state Senate campaign.
Several weeks ago, her father died after a long illness. Even as Bentley coped with that personal loss, her political life was thrown into disarray when her opponent, Assemblywoman Lucy Killea, became a national media star after San Diego Catholic Bishop Leo T. Maher denied her Communion because of her pro-choice stand on abortion.
And, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Bentley developed a serious cold and sore throat--clearly, a much less severe problem, but one that nonetheless continues to make speaking difficult for her, curtailing her final-week campaign schedule.
“It’s been quite a month,” Bentley said between sips of a soft drink at her consultants’ downtown office Tuesday. “I generally have a positive attitude, and I’m a pretty focused person, so I’ve kept my mind on doing what’s necessary to make this a successful campaign. But it has been difficult at times lately.”
The recent chaos in Bentley’s personal and political life is a stark contrast to the rather somnolent pace with which the Dec. 5 election was unfolding before Maher’s sanction against Killea. Instantly, a campaign that had drawn limited attention even in San Diego became Page 1 news nationwide, catapulting Killea to overnight celebrity and jeopardizing Bentley’s front-runner status in the heavily Republican 39th District.
Though clearly concerned about the controversy’s lingering impact, Bentley argues that voters “are sick and tired of hearing about abortion"--a comment based as much on hope as objective analysis among her strategists, who recognize that the episode has been a significant boon to Killea’s candidacy.
Eager to shift the focus of the campaign during its closing days, Bentley plans to use her personal appearances, mailers and television ads to redirect voters’ attention to the candidates’ partisan and philosophical differences--and, in so doing, perhaps minimize the abortion issue’s influence.
“Our message in the final week is that there’s more to life than single-issue politics,” said consultant David Lewis, whose firm, Johnston & Lewis, is managing Bentley’s campaign. “It does a disservice to the public to look at this race any other way.”
One of Bentley’s mailers offers the perspective that she hopes to persuade voters to share next week when they fill the vacancy created by Republican Larry Stirling’s resignation to accept a Municipal Court judgeship. With only one other minor write-in candidate, public defender Tom Connolly, also competing in the primary, either Bentley or Killea is expected to win election outright next week by surpassing the 50% margin needed to avoid a runoff.
“Abortion may grab newspaper headlines, but in the Dec. 5 state Senate campaign . . . by 5-to-1, voters are much more concerned about crime and drugs,” the mailer says, referring to a survey conducted by the Bentley campaign. According to the same survey, a candidate’s overall political philosophy is more than twice as important to voters than his position on any single issue, even one as emotional as abortion, the brochure says.
Reiterating the same theme, Bentley often tells campaign audiences that state legislators “cast hundreds of votes every year having nothing to do with abortion.”
“We’ve pretty much exhausted this one issue, and now it’s time to move on to other subjects,” Bentley said. “In the last few days, I think a lot of people have begun to feel like this abortion thing has been run into the ground. There are plenty of other differences between us to talk about.”
Ratings by interest groups that closely monitor the Assembly underline how dramatically Bentley’s and Killea’s voting records differ. The California Chamber of Commerce, for example, found that Bentley agreed with its pro-business, generally conservative position on 16 of 18 key votes during the past year, while Killea sided with the group on only four occasions. Conversely, the California League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Killea, gave her a 100% rating on key environmental votes, contrasted with a score of only 26% for Bentley.
Intensifying an effort that she began at the race’s outset, Bentley has stepped up her attempts to paint Killea as a liberal Democrat with close ties to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). Although emphasizing her own Republican affiliation, a major asset in a district with a 49%-38% GOP edge among registered voters, Bentley also goes to lengths to characterize Killea as someone who, as one of her mailers puts it, “made a sharp turn to the left” when she moved from the San Diego City Council to Sacramento seven years ago.
“Lucy Killea likes to tell Republicans she’s a Democrat with a small ‘d,’ ” the Bentley brochure says. “But her voting record proves she’s a Democrat with a big ‘D’ and a liberal with a big ‘L.’ ”
The purported Brown-Hayden-Killea nexus is a recurring theme in the Bentley television ads that began airing Wednesday. Two different ads emphasize that Killea cast the deciding vote that allowed Brown to retain the speakership as well as opposed efforts to oust “radical extremist” Hayden from the Assembly.
Killea’s positions on fiscal issues also come under attack in the ads.
“She’s voted to overturn Proposition 13, which could triple my property taxes,” a woman says in one 30-second ad. “And she’s voted to tax my husband’s Navy pension and to tax my Social Security. I’m sorry, I just can’t afford Lucy Killea.”
In her standard stump speech, Bentley emphasizes her policy differences with Killea on a number of other high-profile issues, including:
* The death penalty, which Bentley says she would toughen through, among other things, proposed legislation intended to eliminate “frivolous appeals.” Although Killea has consistently said throughout her four-term career that she believes capital punishment is “justified in some cases,” Bentley faults her for opposing various proposals to strengthen the state’s death-penalty law.
* Redistricting, a task that Bentley would turn over to an independent commission in an effort to minimize partisan considerations in the drawing of boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts. Killea, however, “wants to let the politicians continue playing their games” by preserving the Legislature’s authority over the process, Bentley contends.
“You can’t completely remove redistricting from the political process--it’s part of the system,” Killea responds. “Maybe there’s a need to strengthen certain guidelines so that you don’t break up neighborhoods and avoid some of these more exotic districts. But, unless you get people from Mars to do it, politics is always going to be involved.”
* Taxation and Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax-cutting initiative that requires a two-thirds majority vote for public approval of new taxes. Conceding that the two-thirds requirement may be overly stringent, Bentley favors a proposal to allow school bond issues to be approved by a so-called “super majority” of 60%, rather than the 66.7% needed under Proposition 13.
Killea, however, argues that a simple 50% majority vote should be sufficient to approve new taxes--a position that Bentley charges would “gut” both the letter and intent of Proposition 13. Responds Killea: “If you drop the requirement to 60%, you’re still permitting 41% to rule. That allows a minority to rule the majority, and that’s not the way our government works.”
Even as she attempts to broaden the campaign’s dialogue, admittedly into areas of her choosing, Bentley has not ignored the issue that elevated an otherwise obscure state Senate race to at least fleeting national prominence.
Conceding that a volatile issue such as abortion can play a decisive role in a special election--in part by persuading voters to cross party lines--Bentley consultant Lewis speculates that the political fallout stemming from Maher’s denial of Communion to Killea could increase turnout by as much as 5 percentage points to the low-to-mid 30s range.
“Without question, there are some (pro-choice) Republicans who are motivated by the abortion issue,” Lewis said. “We have to bring them back home by reminding them there’s a lot more to this job than that one issue.”
Unlike Killea, Bentley opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is endangered. That position, Bentley argues, is “much more in tune with the district and the American people” than Killea’s pro-choice stance.