CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS GOVERNOR : Feinstein, Wilson Woo Farm Vote in California's Heartland

TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

While confessing that "I am a city girl," Dianne Feinstein put on her western duds Sunday and stumped California's agricultural heartland, promising to be a friend of farming if elected governor but refusing to temper her strong support for Proposition 128, the sweeping environmental initiative.

Feinstein and her Republican opponent, Sen. Pete Wilson, crisscrossed the San Joaquin Valley in search of the farm vote that conventional wisdom would concede to Wilson. The area has been a bedrock of support for such GOP candidates as Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian.

That same conventional wisdom holds that any candidate daring to endorse Proposition 128, with its tough anti-pesticide provisions, would think twice about venturing into these flatlands bounded by the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range.

But the valley is changing. Places such as Modesto and Los Banos are booming with San Francisco Bay Area expatriates and commuters in search of affordable housing. With new campaign finance laws limiting contributions to $1,000 per candidate, big corporate farmers no longer wield the political clout they once did.

Feinstein's support for the pesticide phase-out provisions of Proposition 128--called "Big Green" by its backers--triggered some discussion Sunday but no real outrage.

State Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Los Banos), whose dairy farm Feinstein visited, told reporters that farmers do not like pesticides anymore than anyone else. They are expensive to apply, he said, and farmers worry about the potential health effects on their workers and families.

Feinstein and Wilson have refused to endorse agriculture's alternative to Proposition 128 that also appears on the Nov. 6 ballot. While Feinstein openly opposed the farmer-sponsored Proposition 135 initiative Sunday, Wilson continued to remain neutral despite pressure from his backers to support it.

On the second day of a two-day swing through the Central Valley, Wilson insisted that his reluctance to take a position was based on principle as much as politics. Proposition 135, given the moniker CAREFUL by its proponents, would step up pesticide testing but, unlike Proposition 128, would not automatically ban the use of cancer-causing pesticides.

"I think initiatives are a poor way to deal with anything as complex as environmental regulations," Wilson said. "I think it should be done legislatively, carefully, and I think it should be done by the application of honest science."

However, Wilson has been eager to use initiatives on other complex problems--he sponsored the June ballot's Proposition 115, which revamped the state's criminal laws.

Even his agricultural supporters attributed Wilson's decision to stay out of the Proposition 135 debate as a way to limit political criticism from environmental groups. Wilson has garnered the endorsements of the valley's major agricultural groups, which support the measure and have said they will continue to press for Wilson's help.

Both candidates have proposed transferring regulatory control over pesticides from the state Department of Food and Agriculture to the Department of Health Services--a move big agriculture opposes.

Seated on bales of alfalfa at Areias' dairy farm and clad in boots, denim skirt and a leather tooled belt with a fancy silver buckle, Feinstein said she may be a city girl, "but I want to be a good governor for the agriculture industry of California. I want to be a good governor for you."

Although farmers do not like Proposition 128, Feinstein told her agricultural supporters that the initiative is likely to pass and their interest should be in electing a governor who will implement the measure fairly.

"Agriculture is going to be a party to the transition," she said, referring to the new push toward environmental regulation. "The only way to make this work is if there is wholehearted cooperation and support."

Modesto walnut grower Tom Ciccarelli, head of Feinstein's new northern San Joaquin Valley farm advisory committee, said he believes that California agriculture, while still a $16-billion-a-year industry, is losing its political influence.

"We are shrinking in numbers," he said. "So we have to be proactive. We have to be part of the solution. We have to work with the environmental community."

He said farmers are concerned that important pesticides may be banned under the measure before they have developed alternative ways of controlling pests.

"One of the things that agriculture fears the most is the unknown," Ciccarelli said.

Feinstein said Proposition 128 gives the governor discretion to extend the pesticide phase-out by three additional years under certain conditions. In the interim, she has proposed crash programs at the University of California to come up with safe pest-control alternatives.

Meanwhile, maintaining the same campaigning style as he did Saturday with visits to ranches outside Bakersfield, Fresno and Salinas, Wilson trekked to an almond farm outside Modesto on Sunday. There, accompanied by the whir of television cameras, he picked nuts off an almond tree and offered a culinary review.

"They're good. They're ready," he told his host.

Surrounded in the almond field by agricultural industry supporters, he came to the defense of family farmers, saying they had been unfairly portrayed as insensitive to pesticide concerns by proponents of Proposition 128.

He suggested that the true rationale behind the initiative was to strike down his candidacy.

"I frankly resent the fact that they have been targeted politically in order to try to get at me as a candidate," he added.

On a topic of more immediate concern to some Southern Californians who found themselves under the flight path of pesticide-laden helicopters during the battle over the Mediterranean fruit fly, Wilson defended the use of malathion to combat the pest.

"What are you going to do, ignore the threat of infestation that could destroy an industry of the importance of this to the economy of California? The answer to that is 'no.' "

Stall reported from Fresno and Decker from Modesto.

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