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Setting the Stage for the 21st Century

Times Political Writer

It is the last election of the century and, despite all that might have been predicted, not a very typical one for California. No polarizing initiatives have fractured the state along its fault lines of race or gender or fear. No overt grabs have been made at history’s mantle.

But it is historic nonetheless. Beneath the dust-ups over positions held 20 years ago and the traditional political game of pigeonholing the other guy, the tidal surges of demographics and ideology are carving out the California of the future.

By the time election day is over, more money will have been spent on Spanish-language advertising than ever before in a state election, a reflection of the growing power of Latino voters. By the time election day is over, the increasing numbers of moderate voters employed in the state’s burgeoning high-tech industries will have made their mark on the outcome.

By the time election day is over, the winners will foretell California’s political future--whether Democrats will totally control the state’s reapportionment, which will go a long way toward dictating political power well into the next century, or whether Republicans will broaden their reach by making substantial inroads among minority voters. And whether California will elect the first Latino, or Latinos, statewide in more than a century, or elect the first Chinese American U.S. senator from mainland America.

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Some things have not changed. Money and lack of interest, the two predictable totems of California elections, have come to the fore as usual this year. In the primary election for governor--just the primary--the four major candidates spent a stunning $71.8 million. Most of it came from the wallet of Democrat Al Checchi, who parted with almost $40 million of his own cash in an unsuccessful bid for the nomination.

In this fall’s general election, backers of several initiatives on the ballot have spent more than $150 million, with receipts for the most expensive weeks of the campaign yet to be tallied. And those competing over Proposition 5, the Indian gaming initiative, broke a 10-year-old record for initiative spending with the resources of Indian tribes and Nevada casinos.

Even with all that money spent to attract voters, many Californians simply closed their ears to the race until the end. Less than three weeks before election day, a Los Angeles Times poll found that, for many of the initiatives and lesser-known statewide races, a quarter or more of likely voters had no idea how they would vote.

California’s electoral season opened more than a year ago under difficult economic circumstances: While the recession was easing in the minds of voters, they still felt the weight of concern about their futures, which had them casting about for new faces. As the season progressed, however, they grew more confident, a development that helped incumbent officeholders and political veterans.

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Just as 1998 was shaping up as a status quo year, however, came the presidential sex scandal, with all the subtlety of a nuclear bomb detonated in the living room. Democrats panicked, Republicans rejoiced. And then, when Republicans in Congress seemed to press the president a bit too hard, the emotions reversed.

Candidates and political consultants, normally the most publicly confident of people, spent much of the latter part of the election race shrugging their shoulders over just exactly what voters were thinking. As election day neared, no one was completely sure whether a late-brewing Democratic tide was continuing or whether it too might ebb.

“This is a strange election,” one Republican strategist said. “No one is really sure what the hell to make of what’s going on out there.”

There were some things that could be said with certainty, however. In the race for governor, voters flirted with a wealthy newcomer--Checchi--and a woman--Rep. Jane Harman--and tested a new format, a blanket or “open” primary that let them cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice, regardless of party. But they ultimately settled on the two most traditional candidates, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren--each of whom has spent most of their adult lives in politics.

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Davis, the front-runner since the June primary, is seeking to become the first Democrat elected governor in 16 years. Lungren is trying to hold on to the governorship for his party, a goal all the more important because the next governor will reign over decennial redrawing of the state’s political districts. The governor will either veto or approve the boundaries drafted by a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Although the candidates in the governor’s race are the traditional sort--both white men who have worked their way up the political ladder--the remainder of the ticket is diverse, at least compared to most.

State Treasurer Matt Fong is seeking to become the first Chinese American elected to the U.S. Senate from the mainland. He has drawn strength and funding from the Asian community, although he has not heralded his “first-ness” nearly as much as women and minorities have in the past. His opponent, Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, is scrambling to save her seat.

Elsewhere on the major party tickets, three Latinos--Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Cruz Bustamante and two Republicans, controller nominee Ruben Barrales and state schools superintendent nominee Gloria Matta Tuchman--are seeking to become the first Latinos elected statewide in a century.

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Their presence reflects, in part, the growing power of Latino voters, who made up 12% of the state’s electorate in the June primary--nearly twice their strength in the 1992 elections.

After all the predictions, promises and punditry, of course, it is left to the voters to decide. On Tuesday, they will carve out the future of California.

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After spending most of their adult lives in politics, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, at left, a Democrat, and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the Republican nominee, try to capture the California governor’s office Tuesday. Where they stand on the issues: B2

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RACES TO WATCH

U.S. SENATE

Republican State Treasurer Matt Fong, right, has waged a strong campaign to win the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara boxer. where they stand on the issues: B2

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L.A. COUNTY SHERIFF

With the death of Sherman Block, left, voters face an odd decision: Vote for a candidate who now exists only in name on the ballot or for Lee Baca, a retired Sheriff’s Department chief. B6

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ON THE WEB

Special multimedia coverage of Election ’98 can be found on the Los Angeles Times Web site at: https://www.latimes.com/elect98


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