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Wilson Savors Win; Democrats Assess Damage

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Fresh from the most stunning comeback in California political history, Gov. Pete Wilson moved Wednesday to implement controversial Proposition 187 even as he simultaneously sought to cool the passions that he helped raise with his support of the initiative.

Wilson signed an executive order that would cut off prenatal care and nursing home services to illegal immigrants. At the same time, he warned in a Los Angeles news conference against any show of racial intolerance.

“Let me say very clearly, very simply, that there is no room in California for bigotry, discrimination,” Wilson said. “We will continue to condemn intolerance. We will continue to protect individual rights. This is a commitment we make to all Californians without regard to ethnic origin or skin color. It applies regardless of whether the English they speak is with an accent.”

Signaling by his rhetoric that his long-running battle with President Clinton over illegal immigration will extend beyond Election Day, Wilson continued to take defiant jabs at the federal government and sought to reassure voters that he had understood the message of rage delivered so emphatically Tuesday.

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“The voters . . . sent a resounding message to Washington that California is not simply a colony of the federal government to be taxed without limit to pay for the cost of the federal failures,” he said.

While Wilson was relishing the broadest statewide Republican gains in a generation--changes that will substantially improve his chances of pushing a second-term agenda through the Legislature--the Democratic Party was reeling from defeat, seeking to find something glimmering among the ashes of their efforts.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown blamed her loss on a tidal wave of anti-Democratic sentiment. She acknowledged that the three attributes that propelled her to the nomination--that she was a woman, a Democrat and a Brown--turned out to be grim liabilities.

“It was clear that if people went into the voting booth voting their anger, their fear and their frustrations, that I couldn’t win and the Democrats couldn’t win,” she said. “And voters went into the voting booth and voted their fears and their frustrations and their anger.”

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An election cycle that began so confidently for Democrats, on the heels of a 1992 presidential win here for the first time since 1964 and the election of two Democratic senators, ended with defeats more sweeping than almost anyone had expected.

“I’m at a train wreck with no survivors,” said Bob Mulholland, the state party’s campaign adviser. He was exaggerating, but only slightly.

Wilson, still a relatively unpopular governor in a state whose residents are overwhelmingly negative about where California is going, easily outdistanced Brown, 55% to 40%, according to unofficial returns.

Republicans picked up five statewide offices, three more than they have held for most of the last two decades. Of the two statewide Democratic victories, one--the race for controller--was decided by a 2-point margin. Only Democratic veteran Gray Davis, who was elected lieutenant governor, won convincingly, defeating Republican state Sen. Cathie Wright by 12 percentage points.

The GOP won the governorship and the posts of secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general and insurance commissioner. In unofficial returns, they also drew even with Democrats in the Assembly, apparently winning 40 seats, and came within a whisper of seizing the state Senate and possibly the congressional delegation.

One of the few signs of optimism for Democrats was Dianne Feinstein’s apparent reelection to the U.S. Senate by a 47%-45% margin over U.S. Rep. Mike Huffington. Several hundred thousand absentee votes were yet uncounted, but Feinstein was expected to prevail.

In his remarks Wednesday, Wilson asserted that voters had given him a “very clear mandate on issues” that he will pursue in his second term.

“In addition to my own reelection, yesterday’s historic gains for the Republican Party are as well a clear sign that the voters want more of the right kind of change, the kind we have been fighting for and the kind we have been working with Democratic majorities to achieve,” he said.

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“The kind of change that I think people want is for government to do not everything for them but to do those things which they have a right to expect of government and to do them well and to give them priority.”

Wilson said his priorities will be improving the job climate, toughening criminal penalties, reforming education and further overhauling the state’s welfare system.

But most of his time Wednesday was spent explaining the implementation of Proposition 187. Wilson acknowledged that if the measure is upheld by the courts--on Wednesday a judge already restrained the state from expelling illegal immigrants from schools--it will cause some “dislocation.”

“We intend to enforce it,” he said. “We also intend to do so in a way that produces as little dislocation as possible. But it is going to produce some dislocation.”

The governor continued to frame the initiative as one that would take services from illegal residents and give them to legal residents. He said Wednesday that barring illegal immigrants from receiving prenatal care--which he demanded in the executive order--would allow the state to pay for prenatal care for 1,000 more poor legal residents each month.

Brown, in her remarks to reporters at a separate Los Angeles news conference, gave Wilson grudging credit for being “very shrewd” at distilling the election into a contest over crime and immigration.

"(Wilson) found two dogs that hunt: immigration and crime,” she said. “What I’m concerned about is how we’re going to balance this budget. What I’m concerned about is how are we going to fix our schools and our colleges and our universities. Those are going to be the instruments of prosperity for California.”

She declined to attribute blame for her loss to anything but the overwhelming national tide against Democrats. But it was clear that Brown’s campaign was weaker than Democrats had hoped.

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Brown collected about 3.2 million votes, almost 850,000 fewer than the second Democrat on the ballot, Lt. Gov.-elect Davis. Feinstein and the Democratic nominees for secretary of state, controller and insurance commissioner also tallied more votes than Brown.

If Brown was reluctant to cast blame on her own campaign or her own party Wednesday, other Democrats were not. The poor showing set off rounds of angry internecine criticism as Democrats sought to figure out how to cope as a distinctly minority party nationally and to a great extent in California.

Many Democrats privately blamed the Brown campaign for a weak showing that by extension lowered enthusiasm for their candidates farther down the ballot. Many were furious about Brown’s failure to run virtually any commercials over the last weekend before the election--because the campaign had run out of money.

“We’ve taken losses with constitutional officers and with the Legislature and a big chunk of the blame has to be assigned to the gubernatorial race,” said Darry Sragow, a strategist who ran the losing campaign of incumbent Rep. Richard Lehman of Fresno.

Asked what had gone wrong in the governor’s race, party campaign adviser Mulholland said bluntly: “There was no governor’s race. . . . In reality, there was only one team on the field and that was Wilson’s.”

Mulholland and Sragow were among the Democrats speaking openly Wednesday of the need for a fundamental rethinking of the party’s future. Mulholland blasted national Democratic leaders of projecting an image of “corruption, perks and power.”

Party Chairman Bill Press held a more optimistic view, pointing to Feinstein’s apparent win as an indication that Democrats here held back the GOP flood tide better than their peers in other states.

But, he acknowledged, “anybody who would deny that this is a colossal, hopefully temporary, realignment is just kidding themselves.”


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