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Election signals voters’ evolution

Please permit me some brief reveling in nostalgia and history. Then we’ll move on to other things.

Nearly half a century ago, my first vote for president was to elect the first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.

It’s hard to envision today how big a deal that was. A Catholic! Who would have thought?

The electorate was hungry for change. The country seemed to be stagnating and perhaps even losing the Cold War. Americans were demoralized because the Russians had beat us into orbit with the satellite Sputnik.

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Kennedy, just 43, especially appealed to us young people. He injected excitement into politics and inspired the public with a sense of renewal and hope.

And for the first time in 48 years, it feels like that again today after electing Barack Obama America’s first African American president.

We’ve climbed a long way in my lifetime toward eradicating the religious and racial prejudices that fester in ignorance. Here’s one example:

I vividly remember as a young California kid listening to white men who’d migrated from the South actually arguing, in the mid-1940s, in Santa Barbara, about whether black people were human. My dad was the liberal, insisting they were.

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We’ve evolved a great deal since then.

Tuesday was an especially proud day to be an American, regardless of anyone’s politics.

And if there ever was a “Bradley effect” in politics -- the supposed tendency of some white voters to lie to pollsters when asked if they’d support a black candidate -- it didn’t surface in Obama’s election. The so-called effect -- which always seemed to me to be more of a pollsters’ excuse than a political phenomenon -- got its name from the narrow defeat in 1982 of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in his bid to become California’s first African American governor.

Governor’s race

California still hasn’t elected an African American or a female governor. But Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein could become that female. It’s hers for the taking in 2010, many believe.

“If she does run, she’s the nominee, and she’s the governor,” says political consultant Garry South, the top strategist for another potential Democratic candidate, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. “She’s been a terrific United States senator.”

In 1998, South was the strategist who steered Democrat Gray Davis to the governor’s office. “If she had run in 1998,” South continues, “she would have blown everyone out of the water, including Gray Davis. She’s a larger-than-life picture. A towering presence in the United States Senate.”

And here’s his real message: “Whether she’d want to trade all that in and come back to run California is a serious question. Budget deficits as far as the eye can see. A term-limited Legislature.

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“I personally don’t think she’ll take the plunge.”

But if she does, Newsom has told her, he won’t run.

If she doesn’t, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination will be former governor and current attorney general Jerry Brown. “I’m seriously thinking about it but in no way have made up my mind,” he told me Monday.

Many top Democrats say Brown, 70, has privately told them he definitely is running. He already has raised $3 million.

Brown was governor once, from 1975 to 1983. Why would he want to be again?

“That’s a very good question. A threshold question,” he replied. “Some things I did then are coming back to the forefront. For example, alternative energy. Renewable energy. . . . Things I started, I may want to finish.”

Like South, Brown subtly tries to dissuade Feinstein from running.

“Things look pretty exciting in Washington; 2009 will be like the first year of the Roosevelt administration,” he says. “Senior senators with 16 years of seniority [such as Feinstein] are among the most important persons in America. Governors are not given the same deference. [Governors] run into a buzz saw of obloquy. . . ."You need a very thick skin.”

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Election take-away

There is much to examine from Tuesday’s election for potential 2010 gubernatorial candidates.

Newsom, 41, is the handsome fresh face who presumably would appeal to young voters attracted to Obama, 47. But he didn’t help himself for a future general election by being on the wrong side politically of Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage.

Newsom, who issued same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco when it was illegal, became the early poster boy for Prop. 8 sponsors. And his provocative declaration at a rally that same-sex marriage was coming, “like it or not,” provided effective footage for pro-8 TV ads.

But with good care, most political scars can heal in two years.

Feinstein, 75, will measure the thrill of being part of a strengthened Senate majority working with a historic new president against the career-long yearning to become the governor of her troubled native state. And the first female governor, at that.

For now, Feinstein says, she’ll focus on being chairwoman of the Obama inaugural committee and won’t decide about running for governor until sometime next year.

“She’s definitely, definitely thinking very hard about doing it,” says her longtime strategist, Bill Carrick. “I’ve talked to her several times. I’m very surprised at how interested she is.”

Feinstein has been making the rounds of Democratic politicians, contributors and policy wonks, asking penetrating questions about how to fix Sacramento -- and whether it really is ungovernable.

That may well hinge on whether Prop. 11 -- Tuesday’s ballot initiative to take away the Legislature’s redistricting power to rig its own elections -- maintains a slim lead as final votes are counted. If it winds up winning, that would be a boost to the political reform movement. A loss would be a setback.

The majority party -- Democrats -- will never voluntarily surrender its gerrymandering power. Ironically, Democrats could have added even more legislative seats Tuesday than the three they apparently did if the districts had been fairly drawn rather than fixed in a bipartisan conspiracy to protect the political status quo.

One thing never changes in society or politics: Those with power fight to retain it, even if the power boomerangs.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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