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Setting the Stage for the 21st Century

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It is the election that will have a lasting impact on the political makeup of California and Orange County into the next century.

By the time election day is over, the winners will foretell California’s political future. Voters will decide whether Democrats will control the state’s reapportionment, which will help dictate political power well into the 21st century, or whether Republicans will broaden their reach by making substantial inroads among minorities.

Voters also will decide 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.

Voters in Orange County will choose two of five members for the Board of Supervisors, which next year faces a slew of major decisions that will have significant impact on the county. The fate of the planned airport to replace the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station--a proposal that has been the most divisive issue in county politics--hangs in the balance.

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Other high-profile decisions include whether to continue plans for expanding the James A. Musick jail near Lake Forest and the future of the county executive officer, Jan Mittermeier, criticized by two supervisors for having too much authority.

The fate of each of those issues will be determined by the candidates who win Tuesday, and that will shape the look of the county into the coming century. The candidates in this year’s election hold strikingly different views on nearly all of the important issues.

“I’ve lived in the county for more than 30 years, and there is more at stake in this election than any other I’ve seen,” said Supervisor William G. Steiner, who is leaving his 4th District seat. “What’s at stake is more than the El Toro Air Station. But also the governance structure . . . and the direction we will head in terms of law enforcement and public safety.”

In the county’s other high-profile race, voters in the central cities will decide whether to keep the county’s only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove, or return former congressman Robert K. Dornan to office. Countywide, voters will tap winners in four other congressional races, the county’s legislative contests and dozens of city council, school board and special district races.

Perhaps the most polarized county race is for the 2nd District, where incumbent Supervisor Jim Silva is squaring off against Dave Sullivan, a Huntington Beach city councilman. Silva supports El Toro airport plans, the Musick jail expansion and the county executive; Sullivan opposes all three.

Both candidates in the northwestern district agree that the county’s future could be significantly altered depending on who wins this election.

Candidates for the 4th District seat Steiner is vacating had agreed on almost all issues, until recently.

Lou Lopez, an Anaheim city councilman, softened his pro-airport stance after hearing many complaints from residents about the negative aspects of the proposal. He also supports reducing Mittermeier’s powers, as two sitting supervisors do. The latter stance prompted Steiner, a friend of his, to endorse Cynthia Coad, a North County Community College district board member.

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Statewide, voters will choose a new governor between leading candidates Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren, as well as pick seven other state constitutional officers.

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 onto the governorship for his party, a goal all the more important because the next governor will reign over reapportionment, the redrawing of the state’s political districts. The governor will either veto or approve the boundaries drafted by the Legislature.

Elsewhere, 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.

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.

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By the time election day is over, more money will have been spent on Spanish-language advertising than ever before in a state election.

In another landmark statewide race, California Treasurer Matt Fong wants to become the first Chinese American elected to the U.S. Senate from the mainland. His opponent, Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, is scrambling to hang onto her seat.

Further down the ballot for county and state voters are the fate of 12 propositions dealing with everything from banning steel-jawed animal traps to ending electric utility deregulation.

Backers of several initiatives have spent more than $150 million, with receipts for the most expensive weeks of the campaign yet to be tallied.

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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.

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.”


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