Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea’s upset victory in her race for the state Senate was widely seen Wednesday in both political and religious circles as a backlash against a Catholic bishop’s unpopular act, as well as renewed proof of the volatility of the abortion issue.
The day-after explanations for Killea’s narrow victory in the solidly conservative 39th Senate District centered on Roman Catholic Bishop Leo T. Maher, who made Killea a national cause celebre in mid-November when he barred her from receiving Communion because of her pro-choice stand on abortion.
Killea herself downplayed the impact of Maher’s decision, arguing--as she had throughout the campaign--that it was “only one of many” factors in her race against GOP Assemblywoman Carol Bentley of El Cajon, who opposes abortion in most instances.
But Bently and other Republican leaders in Sacramento blamed the party’s loss of the seat primarily on the controversy over Maher’s sanction, which dominated the final three weeks of the campaign to the virtual exclusion of any other issues.
Final unofficial vote totals show that Killea received 61,860 votes (50.9%), compared to 59,496 votes (49%) for Bentley. A minor third candidate, Public Defender Tom Connolly of El Cajon, drew only about 50 write-in votes.
Killea’s victory came in a special election held to fill the Senate seat of Republican Larry Stirling, who resigned two months ago to accept a Municipal Court judgeship.
Maher’s rebuke of Killea, Republicans argued, not only generated a groundswell of sympathy for Killea but also motivated other voters by reviving the familiar debate over separation of church and state.
“If the bishop had stayed out of it, I would have won--no doubt about it,” Bentley said Wednesday. “Overnight, he turned my opponent into an international celebrity and martyr.”
Added Republican state Senate Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno: “It is obvious the voters . . . did not approve of (Maher’s) perceived intervention in this campaign.”
Some Catholic theologians and priests also faulted Maher’s move as ill-advised--"proof that political wisdom does not necessarily come with episcopal consecration,” in the words of Father Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.
Lesson for Others
“If there was any enthusiasm out there among bishops to imitate Maher’s action, this certainly is going to pour cold water on it,” Reese said. “The lesson of this election is that bishops ought to be very cautious about doing anything that could be construed as interfering with politics.”
Maher himself, however, said Wednesday that he had no second thoughts about his controversial decision. Under the same circumstances, he would take the same action, Maher said.
“No popular vote or public opinion can change in any way the divine law that directs and guides mankind,” Maher said in a statement released by his office. “In this case, we continue our pastoral endeavor of proclaiming . . . that life is an absolute value. The pro-choice movement is a pro-death movement.”
Democratic leaders hailed Killea’s upset victory as evidence that the abortion issue may become the party’s political trump card in the 1990s. The party’s pro-choice position on the issue, Democratic officials argued, is much more compatible with public sentiment than the Republicans’ generally more restrictive stance.
Abortion “is a political time bomb located in the central core of the Republican Party,” said Senate Democratic Leader Barry Keene of Benicia.
“The bottom line in this race is that the right-to-choose issue and the separation-of-church-and-state issue can overwhelm a district’s natural tendency to automatically vote Republican,” he said. “The blinders are finally off.”
State GOP Chairman Frank Visco, however, cautioned against overly sweeping interpretations of Tuesday’s election, noting that its unique circumstances blur the picture of how its lessons might apply to future races.
“Am I concerned? Yes, of course,” Visco said. “Any time a Democrat wins in a Republican district, I’m concerned. Clearly, this shows that we as a party have to do a better job explaining our position on this very, very important issue of abortion. . . . But the fact is, this was such an unusual race in so many respects . . . the long-range lessons get a little confusing.”
A 67-year-old former San Diego city councilwoman now in her fourth term in the Assembly, Killea began the special 39th District race as an underdog, despite being better known, better financed and having a longer legislative resume than Bentley, a freshman from El Cajon whose major asset was the district’s 49%-38% Republican registration edge.
Killea’s uphill candidacy was galvanized, however, by Maher’s unusually harsh--and, many believed, improperly political--sanction.