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Among Voters, Contentment Is Subject to Change

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The breakfast crowd was discussing politics at the Bostonia Chinese American restaurant--a down-home spot on the main drag of this rural community in Riverside County.

If any politicians had been present, their ears would have been crimson.

The pollsters tell us that Californians are feeling less grouchy now that the economy is improving, and that this is good news for political incumbents. Could be, but residents here, and presumably elsewhere, still have a load of grievances against government at all levels. Woe betide the politician, incumbent or would-be, who is not attuned to that fact.

“Government cares more about rats than it does about people,” said Mike Andrews, 44, a self-employed handyman, a reference to the protection afforded the kangaroo rat by the Endangered Species Act, which has thwarted the building plans of numerous Hemet property owners.

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“Whatever happened to all that money the lottery was supposed to provide for schools?” asked Gary Turnbull, 52, an industrial electrician. “They keep changing the lottery, and the schools are still in bad shape.”

And so it went as diners sounded off over biscuits smothered in homemade gravy with bacon or sausage ($2.95 on the “light side” menu).

“Government should leave the Indians alone out at their casinos,” said Jean Bissonette, 52, a mobile home service technician. “As long as there isn’t corruption, the government should butt out of the casinos.”

“They let people stay on welfare too long, and too many of them are told to move here because the rents are cheap,” said Peggy Shaughnessy, 42, a grocery clerk. “It’s not fair to those of us who work.”

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Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said the folks at Bostonia were just engaging in that thoroughly American, particularly post-Watergate practice of bashing politicians.

“Cynicism about government is part of our culture,” Cain said. And he warned that the optimistic mood found by pollsters could turn into “Throw the bums out!” by November.

All it might take is an economic down tick, a national or international crisis--or even an innovative political slogan, he said, noting that Newt Gingrich’s “contract with America,” credited with leading the 1994 “Republican revolution,” was not unveiled until September of that year.

“The public’s optimism is very fragile,” Cain said.

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On a midweek night in his race for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, millionaire car alarm manufacturer Darrell Issa had driven the 50 miles from his home in Vista in northern San Diego County to talk to a dinnertime gathering of the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Republican Women Federated.

Issa has figured that his best bet in his fight with state Treasurer Matt Fong for the nomination is to stress his anti-government views and his outsider status. And what better place than Hemet (population 57,000), a Republican stronghold?

Talking to 35 women and half a dozen men at the Anchor restaurant at the far end of Florida Avenue from the Bostonia, Issa laid it on thick.

He promised to introduce a bill to end pensions for legislators. He jibed that Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer “never met a tax she didn’t like.” He had a put-down for a favorite target of Republicans: “I’m not going there [Washington] for the chance to party with Teddy Kennedy.”

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Issa eschewed a chance to display modesty when asked about his “passion” for America. “I don’t want to be self-effacing because it doesn’t become any politician,” he said.

Not one to linger and glad-hand, Issa spoke, answered questions and left. He was gone when Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa) warned the gathering that his fellow conservatives should not be lulled into slowing the fight against taxes, regulations and big government.

“This is a time when taxpayers and citizens are complacent,” Granlund said. “There is not much interest in what is happening in Sacramento and Washington. We need a rallying cry to get conservatives energized.”

Later in the evening, members of the audience were asked to list their concerns in this election year. Among them: Social Security, Medicare, HMO restrictions, the presence of a high number of prison parolees in Hemet, the fight for federal money to realign California 79 and a disturbing sense that the country is in decline.

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“The moral climate of this country is going downhill fast,” said Byron Denholm, 66, a veterinarian. “The president should be a moral leader, but he isn’t. And Barbara Boxer supports him.”

Although Hemet has enjoyed some economic boost--new Target, Home Depot and Staples stores, and a payroll boost from construction of a reservoir west of town--the recovery has not been complete. Nervousness about the economy lingers.

“We keep hearing about this wonderful economy, but half our buildings are still empty,” said Aileen Lang, 60ish, the club president. “We keep scratching our heads and asking: ‘Where is it?’ ”

Two days later, Issa said he wasn’t surprised that the residents of Hemet are still leery about the state of the economy. “The problem with California is we’ve become too L.A.-centric, and we’re surprised when other communities see things differently,” he said.

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It would be wrong to say that Hemet, with a high percentage of retirees, is boiling with concern over national or statewide politics. Most of the talk in the barbershops and watering holes is intensely local.

The Police Department has just bought a new $12,000 lie detector that uses a laptop computer. The City Council just rejected plans for a halfway house for mentally ill criminals. And the 75th annual Ramona Pageant (“California’s official outdoor play”) opened this weekend.

Politically speaking, this is Sonny Bono territory. Hemet is part of the late congressman’s district, and Hemet voters were enthusiastic in support of his widow, Mary, in her recent successful bid for the remainder of his term.

Sonny Bono served one year as grand marshal of the pageant parade. This year, the marshal was actress Michelle Stafford from the television soap opera “The Young and the Restless.”

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Mayor Robin Lowe spends much of her time trying to reverse what her constituents see as the negative impact of decisions made by outside governments.

She worked with state legislators to reduce the flow of welfare recipients from Los Angeles, petitioned officials to stop criminals from being paroled to Hemet and serves on a county committee looking to trim the protection provided to the kangaroo rat.

The parolee issue is particularly galling. “Why should we be the dumping ground for Los Angeles and other places up north because our rents are low?” she asked.

At the Sportsman Barbershop, a query about politics brought complaints about taxes from the patrons.

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“There’s something wrong when there is no control over the higher echelon and how they’re spending our money,” said Jack Monterville, 63, a retired refrigeration technician.

“The Bible says that any taxation over 10% is bondage and that’s where we are today, in bondage,” said Hal Griffith, 57, a trucking company owner.

There is even sympathy for the tobacco industry in its push-pull with Congress.

“Taxing the tobacco industry like they’re trying to do is wrong,” said Bud Scarff, 79, a retired school administrator. “This is supposed to be a free country. You can’t attack an industry like that.”

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Marilyn Scales, 45, owner of a custom framing company, was starting her pickup truck when she stopped to deliver her view of politicians.

“They all give good speeches, but where are the results?” she said. “I wouldn’t mind paying for things if I thought government could get results, but they never do.”

A post-speech phone-in poll in the Hemet News suggested that Hemet residents are responding positively to Issa’s anti-government theme. Then again, only 99 people bothered to call in, compared to 400-plus when the poll asked about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

But as professor Cain, acting director of Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, noted, it’s only April.

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“People in Hemet worry about what government will do to them, instead of being happy of what it’s done for them,” said Jack Lancaster, 43, a drywaller. “Maybe they’re not flaming mad right now, but it doesn’t take much to get them riled up.”


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