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The Earl Warren precedent

Jim Newton is city-county bureau chief for The Times and the author of "Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made." jim.newton@latimes.com

SIXTY YEARS AGO, California experienced a unique moment in its fractious political history. In the primary of the governor’s race of 1946, Republican voters unsurprisingly picked incumbent Earl Warren to again represent the GOP in the November election. What was remarkable, however, was what the state’s Democrats did: They nominated him too.

That sealed the outcome, and Warren coasted to victory that fall. He justifiably took pride in having carved a solid political center in a state that often had seemed -- and in the years since, has again seemed -- to resist moderation.

Next month, another moderate Republican again tests his hold on the state’s center, and under conditions not so different from those Warren faced. Now, as then, a Republican incumbent sits astride a state whose voter registration is overwhelmingly Democratic -- about 43% of Californians today affiliate with the Democratic Party, compared with 34% who identify with the GOP. Now, as in 1946, the incumbent needs crossover support to win. Even policy undercurrents are similar, as galloping growth sets many of the terms of today’s political debate just as it did in 1946.

Veterans returning from World War II overwhelmed California’s housing, flooded its highways and tested its ability to supply basic services to a cascade of migrants. Every Monday, Warren used to reflect, another 10,000 residents landed in the state, all of them needing police and schools, sewer hookups and water.

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Sixty years later, no cognizant resident of California needs to be reminded of the pressures of births and immigration, nor of the resulting stress on the state’s infrastructure and institutions.

It is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who confronts today’s incarnation of those challenges. And he has pursued his reelection with a page from Warren’s program -- a decidedly centrist strategy. He is emphasizing his distance from the unpopular Bush administration and his support for a number of proposals backed by Democrats, including a hike in the state’s minimum wage and ballot measures that would pay for infrastructure improvements through voter-approved bonds.

In that, he’s received the support of leading Democrats, who are halfheartedly backing their own gubernatorial candidate, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, while at the same time helping to carve Schwarzenegger’s path to the political center.

In part, that’s driven by policy. Joining forces with Schwarzenegger has given Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez victories on long-standing Democratic issues -- rarely do California’s Democrats get the support of a leading Republican in their quest to hike the minimum wage -- and helped Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa prevail in his partial takeover of the city’s public schools.

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At the same time, there are baser political calculations at work. Villaraigosa aspires to the governorship, and electing Schwarzenegger ensures an open seat in four years. Nunez, meanwhile, is said to covet the job of Los Angeles mayor, so moving Villaraigosa up and out serves his personal aspirations as well.

The result is a coalition of interests around Schwarzenegger’s candidacy, one that allows him to lay claim to the state’s political center. The victim is Angelides, but few of his fellow Democrats seem to care much. “Angelides,” said one veteran observer of the state’s Democratic leadership, “is the guy who gets left in the dust.”

Schwarzenegger in 2006 thus may follow in the footsteps of Warren in 1946. Still, it’s safe to say that Schwarzenegger is no Earl Warren.

For one thing, Warren came by his centrism more honestly than Schwarzenegger. Warren campaigned his whole political life as a nonpartisan and governed that way as well, drawing on his own experience to fashion common-sense policies at times at odds with Republican dogma.

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Soon after being elected in 1942, Warren fell ill. While recovering, he contemplated the catastrophe that confronted families if a breadwinner was incapacitated by medical problems. When he returned to his post, Warren proposed a universal health insurance program for California. It was bitterly opposed by the California Medical Assn. and its Republican allies, but Warren found enthusiastic backing from Democrats.

Universal healthcare didn’t come to pass, but Warren’s dogged pursuit of it -- and his willingness to tax employers to provide it -- won him lasting allies in the Democratic Party.

In Schwarzenegger’s case, the governor began his term by governing to the right, seeking voter approval for initiatives that angered unions representing teachers and police officers, among others. Only his humbling defeat by those groups brought him back to the center.

Warren never engaged in such a twist. “Leadership, not politics” was a favorite slogan -- and his long political career before and after the 1946 race was marked by his determination to draw support from both parties.

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Warren’s campaigns also were aided by a device that has since been relegated to the ash bin of California politics, the so-called cross-file, under which candidates of either party could seek the nomination of the other. Its demise in the years after Warren’s governorship means that candidates must affiliate with a single party and seek its nomination.

That’s a development that some observers of California politics lament, because the ability to cross-file had the effect of bending candidates to the center as they strove to appeal to voters of the other party.

It’s easy to imagine that some recent elections would have ended differently had the cross-file still been around. Take the 2002 gubernatorial race, for instance. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was beaten up in the primary by the far more conservative Bill Simon, who then went on to an embarrassing defeat by incumbent Gray Davis, a Democrat who positioned himself as a centrist against Simon. But Davis was so unpopular -- and Riordan so relatively moderate on issues such as abortion and gay rights -- that had Riordan had access to the cross-file, he might well have won the governorship.

Without Davis’ reelection, there would have been no recall and thus no Schwarzenegger. Such is history.

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Across the generations, each campaign has its idiosyncrasies, but one thing in politics is constant: Every campaign ends with a winner and loser. Angelides still has time to run, but few would be surprised at this point to see him in the loser’s chair next month.

In 1946, the sacrifice was the state’s capable and well-meaning attorney general, Robert Kenny, whom Warren defeated in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Kenny had been an early supporter of Warren during the 1938 campaign for attorney general, when Warren was seeking statewide office for the first time. In that campaign, Kenny sought out Warren’s views on civil liberties and, finding them acceptable, endorsed him for that office over the protests of fellow Democrats.

“I save him from oblivion in 1938 and then end in oblivion myself,” Kenny reflected later. “You’ve got to be careful whom you help in politics.”

Some things never change.

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