Californians approved a change to term limits for state lawmakers, but a measure to raise tobacco taxes for the first time in nearly two decades was in trouble, voting returns showed late Tuesday.
In Southern California contests, the nonpartisan race for Los Angeles County district attorney was locked in a three-way contest among Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Jackson and L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. Lacey, who was leading the pack, would become the first African American or female D.A. in county history if elected in a November runoff to replace the retiring Steve Cooley.
Three incumbent Los Angeles County supervisors — Mark Ridley-Thomas, Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich — appeared to be breezing to new four-year terms, with only Antonovich facing a challenger.
With both Democratic President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney already having sewn up their party’s nominations, California’s presidential primary was anti-climactic, deflating voter enthusiasm and turnout at the polls.
Those who cast ballots made state history, however, with the first test of California’s newly drawn political districts and the first comprehensive use of the top-two primary — which in races for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and state Legislature sends the two candidates who collect the most votes to the November election, regardless of party affiliation.
Both changes were tailored to favor candidates with at least somewhat wide appeal, including those not hitched to any political party, and mute the hyper-partisan rancor consuming Washington and Sacramento. Among the offspring of these changes were some political oddities.
San Fernando Valley Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both shifted into the same district, were on pace to collect enough votes Tuesday to continue their intraparty grudge match through the November general election — sans a Republican challenger — and a party-backed Democrat was battling to survive until this fall’s race for a Ventura County congressional seat that tilts slightly to the left.
“Candidates of both parties are being forced to talk to a much wider range of voters than ever before, instead of relying on the ideological bases of their parties, to get to the general election,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “We’re going to see a greater number of competitive elections, and that’ll lead to the election of more responsive candidates.”
Bucking that trend was U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who finished far ahead of a pack of 23 mostly unknown, scantily funded challengers in her bid for a fourth full term. Danville autism activist Elizabeth Emken, endorsed by the state Republican leadership, collected enough votes to face the popular, well funded Feinstein in November — a task so daunting that the Senate race failed to attract even an adventurous GOP middleweight.
Many races remained too close to call as votes were being counted late Tuesday, especially in contests with crowded fields and candidates separated by mere percentage points. Low turnout only added to the volatility.
Katrina Eagilen, a dentist who was in charge of a precinct at the base of Mt. Washington on Tuesday morning, shook her head in dismay at the paucity of voters.
“I’m a little bit disappointed,” she said, gesturing at the empty voting booths and the quiet room. “Something so important, we should have the place crowded.”
Tobacco companies poured nearly $47 million into their campaign to defeat Proposition 29, a tax designed to raise an estimated $860 million a year for research on tobacco-related diseases and prevention programs.
The American Cancer Society and other proponents predicted that the increase in cigarette prices would stop 220,000 kids from starting to smoke and encourage 100,000 current smokers to quit. They raised more than $11 million, including $500,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $1.5 million from cycling champ Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation.
Backed by the tobacco money, a coalition of anti-tax and business organizations mounted an aggressive campaign against the initiative, including a flood of television commercials and campaign mailers. The proposition, they argued, would create an unaccountable bureaucracy and allow the tax dollars to be siphoned out of California.
Voters were less conflicted about Proposition 28, which would limit lawmakers to 12 years in the Legislature, but allow them to serve the entire stretch in the Assembly or Senate. In 1990, Californians limited lawmakers to three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year stints in the Senate, for a total of 14 years in Sacramento.
The League of Women Voters of California and other supporters of the proposition said lawmakers spend too much time raising funds for the leap from one legislative house to the other and need to be allowed more time in one office to master complex issues and the lawmaking process.
Opponents, including term limits activist and former game show host Chuck Woolery, said the initiative was deceptively pitched as a toughening of term limits when, in fact, legislators could camp longer in one seat.
Holding onto one of California’s 53 congressional seats also proved to be tougher than at any other time in a decade, thanks to political boundaries drawn by a panel of citizens instead of politicians or the courts. Longtime incumbents found themselves vying for votes in unfamiliar territory or in districts merged with those of other House members.
Redistricting squeezed Republican Rep. Gary Miller of Diamond Bar out of his old seat, setting up a fierce GOP clash between him and state Sen. Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga for a district in San Bernardino County. In early returns, both Miller and Dutton were leading Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, a Democrat, in the race to clinch the top two spots.
Democrats hold a five percentage point advantage in registered voters over the GOP in that district, one of several California seats that Washington Democrats say is critical to their efforts to recapture the House this year.
In Ventura County, Democratic state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Oak Park edged out independent candidate Linda Parks of Thousand Oaks to win a place on the November ballot against Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark for a House seat.
The newly drawn Ventura County congressional district, formerly viewed as friendly to Republicans, now is one of several “swing” districts that could be won by either party. Registration in the 26th Congressional District is 41% Democratic, 35% Republican and 19% unaffiliated with any party.
In other closely monitored races:
-- In the Central Valley, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham will face off against former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat, in the race for a newly drawn congressional district this fall.
Although the 10th Congressional District leans Republican because of its conservative voting patterns, Democrats enjoy a small registration edge. There was no incumbent House member living within the district until Denham changed residences to seek reelection there.
-- Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), whom Republican leaders in Washington consider vulnerable, will go up against former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria in the November election in a new congressional district along the Central Coast.
A serious reelection challenge to Capps was almost assured after an independent commission last summer redrew her district, which was once Democrat-friendly but was also derided as the “ribbon of shame” for its blatantly gerrymandered shape along the coast.
Maldonado, a former state senator who angered members of his own party by voting in 2009 to raise taxes to help erase a state budget deficit, had the backing of Republican leaders for the congressional race.
-- In a free-for-all contest for one of California’s biggest congressional districts — which includes the San Bernardino County mountains and deserts, along with Inyo and Mono counties — Assemblyman Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) was leading the pack of 13 contenders, the largest scrum of congressional hopefuls in the state. The second spot remained a toss-up.
Times staff writers Jessica Garrison, Jeff Gottlieb, Angel Jennings, Maria LaGanga, Catherine Saillant, Nicole Santa Cruz and Matt Stevens contributed to this report.