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Shooting themselves in the ballot box

It’s ironic that the politicians who brought Californians their most exciting and important presidential primary in 36 years wound up the election’s biggest losers.

And it didn’t have to turn out that way, as the voting showed.

Californians were allowed to participate in Super Tuesday -- casting meaningful presidential votes in the national spotlight -- because legislative leaders desired an early primary in hopes of changing term limits in time for them to file for reelection this year. Otherwise, they’d be termed out -- and now will be, because Proposition 93 failed.

But Prop. 93 was rejected on a close-enough vote -- by roughly 7 percentage points -- to prove that the leaders’ coveted term limits flexibility was within their grasp. They stumbled all over themselves, however. They had only to look like they deserved the term limits tweak and weren’t trying to pull a fast one. But they didn’t and they were.

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Virtually all legislators lost. They could have served 12 years in one house, rather than a max of six in the Assembly plus eight in the Senate. But the biggest losers were Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who potentially could have held onto his powerful speakership for another six years, and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), who could have stayed four more years.

Their original lofty strategy was a winner: Team the term limits measure with redistricting reform that stripped legislators of the power to draw their own districts, an indefensible conflict of interest. Meanwhile, chalk up some significant achievements in 2007: reform healthcare, upgrade waterworks, pass an honestly balanced budget on time. But Democratic leaders arrogantly and timidly reneged on their promise of redistricting reform. And they failed to deliver major accomplishments.

“It’s very clear that the people felt the legislators have not performed well enough that they deserve a change,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters Wednesday.

Schwarzenegger, who belatedly endorsed Prop. 93, added that “people came up to me on the street [and] said, ‘Why would you want to change the term limit [law] when they haven’t really produced anything last year? They haven’t really made the kind of progress that they should have made.’ It’s really the legislators themselves” who killed Prop. 93.

What really stunk up Prop. 93 was an incumbents’ sweetheart provision that mostly helped senators, including Perata. It would have allowed incumbents to serve 12 years in their current house regardless of previous service in the other house. So some senators could have spent 18 years in the Legislature, six more than advertised in Prop. 93.

Voters probably would have accepted a straight-up deal that allowed incumbents to choose either the new 12-year arrangement or the old 14-year system, but not be awarded extra “transition” years.

“They could have had term limits on a silver platter, but they got greedy,” says Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant who has worked for redistricting reform. “They could have passed it with both hands tied behind their backs.”

There would not have been much of an opposition campaign if Democratic leaders had produced redistricting reform -- rather than bowing to partisan extremists in their caucuses -- and had played it straight on the 12-year tweak.

It’s a good bet that Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner would not have become the opposition leader and poured $2.5 million of his high-tech fortune into the effort.

If redistricting ever does get stripped from the Legislature and turned over to an independent commission, Poizner says, then he could support altering term limits. “I am always open to ideas about how to make term limits work better.”

A probable Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2010, the mild-mannered but outspoken Poizner emerged as one of the big winners Tuesday. During the campaign, he gained invaluable exposure on talk radio and in other news media.

Nunez and Perata emerged as the new poster boys for term limits, replacing the 1990 poster featuring then-Speaker Willie Brown.

The anti-93 ads were demagogic but effective. They plastered Nunez’s and Perata’s unflattering mugs all over TV and brochures, reminding voters that both were under investigation -- the speaker by the state political watchdog for possible illegal expenditure of campaign funds on world travel and luxurious gifts, and the Senate leader by the FBI for possible corruption.

The pro-93 campaign played it relatively straight, trying to sell the merits of term limits flexibility. But the electorate apparently was bent on punishing the politicians and shaking up the Legislature. The “no” vote, I suspect, was aimed more at the legislative leaders than the term limits proposal.

Schwarzenegger came out an election winner. His surprise endorsement of Republican John McCain last week helped the Arizona senator score big in California’s presidential primary.

The governor didn’t produce a victory for Prop. 93, but he didn’t invest much of himself, either.

He was on the winning side in the other proposition contests: opposed to Prop. 92, which would have given community colleges a bigger slice of the tax pie and forced more autopilot spending, and strongly supportive of the Indian gambling propositions, 94-97, which the governor expects will lead to major casino expansions.

Voters “felt that we need the money, especially when we are in a fiscal crisis,” Schwarzenegger said in his election postmortem.

The biggest winners were California voters. They got to play in a thrilling -- maybe once-in-a-generation -- presidential primary. And for that they can thank the term limits poster boys.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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