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Nov. 8 Election: Voters Don’t See It as Special

Times Staff Writers

Two years after Californians made history by ousting their governor in an eruption of populist anger, voters are approaching the latest special election with a mix of reluctance, irritation and, most of all, confusion.

Many ask why they are being summoned to the polls yet again, for the sixth statewide vote in just over 3 1/2 years. They lash out at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, from different points on the political spectrum, with the same cynicism and frustration that undercut his predecessor, Gray Davis.

Democrats, particularly, said the Republican governor was being petulant, calling the Nov. 8 election after failing to push his proposals through a Legislature controlled by the opposition party.

“If he doesn’t get his way, then he just goes out and jumps right in and calls a special election,” Lenore Bartholomew, a 72-year-old retired teacher’s aide, said recently as she finished grocery shopping at a strip mall in Montclair. “I don’t think he’s willing to negotiate or talk. He’s got his mind set on something, and he’s just going to have his way.”

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Even some Republicans who support Schwarzenegger expressed qualms about the off-season vote and the tens of millions of dollars it is expected to cost state and local governments. “It’s spending money that’s not available,” said Bette Braughton, 57, a retired aerospace data manager who lives in Redondo Beach and voted to recall Davis in 2003. “He could be redirecting it toward more useful things.”

Dozens of Californians shared their thoughts about the governor and the upcoming election in random interviews conducted around the state over the last two weeks. They weren’t a scientific sampling, but instead a snapshot of sentiments as Schwarzenegger and an array of interests -- labor unions, teachers, pharmaceutical companies, consumer groups -- head into a brief but intense burst of electioneering not unlike the campaign frenzy of two years ago.

Voters will face eight ballot measures, three of which are being promoted by the governor. Schwarzenegger’s initiatives would establish a budget cap and enhance the governor’s power over state spending, take away lawmakers’ power to draw their own election districts and extend the probationary period for public schoolteachers from two years to five years.

Other measures on the ballot would require parental notification for minors seeking an abortion, except in a medical emergency; establish new regulations for electricity providers; stop public-employee unions from spending member dues on politics without their prior consent; and address the price of prescription drugs sold in the state.

As yet, none of those details seems to have registered with voters. A word or two -- teachers, something about spending, drug prices, something about unions -- was all that anyone could volunteer about the issues voters will confront in about nine weeks.

“Some things were on the ballot, then they fell away,” said John Helminski, a 57-year-old retiree from the Bay Area suburb of Concord, referring to various court fights over the makeup of the November ballot. “I’ll pay more attention when the vote gets closer.”

A handful welcomed the special election. “There are certain things that need to be fixed,” said Kathy Quiros, 45, a Torrance electronics inspector and conservative Democrat. “With the budget crisis and everything, [Schwarzenegger] has to bring it to the people.”

Richard G. Man, a 61-year-old Democrat and Redondo Beach insurance salesman who voted for Schwarzenegger in the recall, agreed. “It’s a good sparkplug, firecracker, wake-up call” for state lawmakers, he said.

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Still, the election has elicited none of the passions stirred by the recall, which combined the epic and the absurd -- 135 candidates, among them a porn starlet -- and captivated the state like few political events in memory.

Looking back, many expressed continued satisfaction with the way voters took matters into their own hands, effectively firing a governor at midterm for just the second time in the nation’s history.

“It was sort of a wake-up call to everyone in state government that we do have the ability to break up the status quo,” said Bill Perkins, 47, a Republican airline pilot from Upland, who was drinking a cup of coffee as he wandered through the Montclair Plaza mall while waiting for his car to be repaired.

Frank Roper, 56, a political independent and pest control company manager from Ontario, agreed. “It sent a very clear message to other politicians that when [voters] are fed up, they’re going to make a change,” he said. “And nobody’s immune.”

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At the same time, few of those interviewed felt it made much difference that Davis, a career politician and 30-year fixture in Sacramento, had been replaced by a muscleman-turned-movie star holding his first elected office. Those views echo recent state polls that have shown Schwarzenegger’s popularity plummeting since the start of the year.

“It looked like a fresh start when he first started,” said Milton Chak, 55, a political independent and government auditor in Martinez, a waterside suburb east of San Francisco. “He looked like a clean guy, a fresh guy, not a politician.”

To accentuate the point, Chak scrunched up his face in his best Hollywood tough-guy squint. “But it turned out he’s another politician as far as I’m concerned,” said Chak, who opposed Davis’ ouster.

Anger, broad and deep, was the fuel behind the recall, fed by a rise in the state vehicle license fee (or “car tax”), higher electricity bills and a sense that Davis had continually placed his own political interests ahead of the people he was supposed to serve.

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The anger seems to have dissipated somewhat. “Not good, not terrible,” was how Isabella Bartle, a 52-year-old stay-at-home mom in Concord, described the state’s direction. The so-so sentiment expressed by Bartle, who usually votes Democratic, reflected the feelings of many of those interviewed.

But that is not to say the anger has disappeared. There was still plenty of griping about record-high gasoline prices, crowded public schools and, especially, the burden imposed by illegal immigration.

“I hope they get a better grip on the borders,” said Mary Lou Lamb, a 50-something Republican mail clerk who was waiting to meet a friend at Todos Santos Plaza, a grassy swath in downtown Concord.

“I know there’s good and bad in all nationalities, but we need to focus a lot on the border. That’s my main concern right now.”

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The state Legislature -- a perpetual source of griping -- came in for plenty of criticism. On the Hermosa Beach Pier, Henry Grodzinski, a 49-year-old political independent from Chatsworth, had some choice words for lawmakers of both parties, “morons” and “idiots” being among the kindest.

“The Democrats and Republicans are playing games with” Schwarzenegger, Grodzinski said, reeling in a foot-long bonita. “They’re running around him in circles.”

Most of the wrath, however, was directed at Schwarzenegger, who once offered himself as a solution to the state’s ills but, to many, has instead become a part of the problem.

“He said he was going to go to Sacramento and fix the big budget deficit. We still have a big budget deficit,” said Helminski, the Concord retiree.

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Helminski, a Democrat, voted to recall Davis and replace him with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante because “he seemed to be getting so much money from special interest groups and they seemed to be defining his policy.”

Now, Helminski said, “it seems to be the same thing today except, perhaps, for different special interest groups.”

At the Coin-Op Laundromat on Artesia Boulevard in Redondo Beach, Don Gillham said much the same thing. While Schwarzenegger has done an “OK” job, Gillham suggested, “there are still too many special interests telling him what to do.”

“He needs to step on more people’s feet,” said Gillham, 63, a conservative Republican who voted for Schwarzenegger in the recall but considers it too soon to say whether he would support his reelection.

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Schwarzenegger will not be on the November ballot. He has not even said whether he plans to seek another term next year. One bit of good news for him is that his two declared Democratic rivals -- state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly -- remain a mystery to those interviewed, none of whom could identify either man.

Even some Schwarzenegger critics, like Elayne Ford, said they have not yet given up on the governor.

After ticking off a long list of complaints -- about illegal immigration, the state’s lack of affordable housing, the perceived shortchanging of teachers and the public schools -- the 75-year-old retiree said she still might vote to give Schwarzenegger a second term.

“I think he’s an honest person, I really do,” Ford, a Republican who supported Schwarzenegger in the recall, said as she dropped off a prescription at the Medicine Shoppe in Ontario. “I think he’s trying, but he’s never been in politics. I don’t think he really realized what it entailed.”

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