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California Politics: Abortion looms large on the November ballot

Supporters of abortion rights rallied in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been almost a quarter-century since California voters have been asked to take a close look at the issue of abortion in a statewide campaign.

In 1998, after eight years of Republican leadership under then-Gov. Pete Wilson — who made it clear he supported a number of abortion rights — the issue caught fire in the campaign to choose his successor. The GOP nominee, then-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, was a strident abortion opponent and had a long record on the issue dating back to his days as a member of Congress.

But polls showed Lungren’s antiabortion position was at odds with most Californians, and Gray Davis, the Democratic lieutenant governor, reminded voters of that inconvenient fact at every turn. Lungren lost by almost 20 percentage points.

“Let’s face it, the abortion stance killed him,” Wilson said to The Times the week after the election.

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Twenty-four years later, a pivotal moment in the abortion debate will return to California through a state constitutional amendment — once thought unnecessary by abortion rights advocates but now a top priority in the wake of a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft ruling that has upended the political world from Washington to Sacramento.

Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted the draft court ruling.
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks Wednesday at a Planned Parenthood office near downtown Los Angeles.
(Michael R. Blood / Associated Press)

Abortion and the California Constitution

“In so many ways, it was predictable,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday to a group of abortion rights supporters in Los Angeles in criticizing the draft opinion to overturn the 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade. “But when you actually saw that decision and started to flip through it, it’s just a remarkable moment in American history.”

Historic, too, was the quick response from Newsom and the leaders of the two legislative houses, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood): a proposal to amend the California Constitution, now being drafted by the Legislature for a spot on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot.

Very few political observers seemed to expect that the battle in Washington, even knowing something big would happen this summer, would trigger an actual abortion rights campaign in the state. In part, that’s probably because it’s long been believed that a 1972 ballot measure enshrining a right to privacy in the California Constitution had settled the issue, to say nothing of a myriad of state laws that provide broad access to abortion services.

But the expansive nature of the draft ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito has “drastically changed” that thinking, Atkins said on Tuesday as Democrats promised that California would welcome women from antiabortion states.

“It was more than a gut punch,” she said.

1998: The last big fight

The prominence of abortion in the 1998 gubernatorial race belied the opinions of California voters on the issue.

A statewide poll taken at the outset of the fall campaign between Davis and Lungren found that 61% of voters supported access to abortion during the first trimester. And polling data throughout the ‘90s found more than two-thirds of voters either wanted no changes to abortion access or wanted to make the services easier to obtain.

Abortion also played a key role in the U.S. Senate race that year, as then-Sen. Barbara Boxer won her reelection race against GOP challenger Matt Fong after a clash over the issue led to a series of blistering TV ads and campaign mailers. Four years later, the issue found its way into the race for state controller — a job with no clear duties related to abortion services (some, though, will note a limited role in payments issued for services) and won by Democrat Steve Westly, whose campaign reminded voters that Tom McClintock, a Republican who now serves in Congress, was a staunch abortion opponent.

Voter sentiment has remained strongly in favor of abortion rights. Almost 80% of likely voters said they do not want the Roe vs. Wade ruling overturned, according to a poll last summer by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans agreed with that sentiment, as did 52% of self-identified conservative voters.

The abortion election

This year’s proposed state constitutional amendment — Atkins will serve as its author and legislative action must be taken before June 30 — could turn almost every California election into a referendum on abortion.

Newsom, far and away the odds-on favorite to win a second four-year term as governor, quickly embraced the issue this week in a sharp attack on his most well-known GOP opponent, state Sen. Brian Dahle. No doubt dozens of legislative and congressional candidates will also be asked to take a stand one way or another on abortion access by the time election day arrives in November.

And in a case of political déjà vu, Democrat Malia Cohen turned the focus of her race for state controller Thursday to attacking Republican candidate Lanhee Chen for not clarifying his position on abortion. Chen issued a statement saying he “would have neither the power nor inclination to change current California laws regarding abortion” as controller, declining to discuss his views on the subject.

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Sacramento snapshots

— California budget watchers anticipate blockbuster news about state tax revenue when Newsom unveils his revised state budget next week. State Senate Democrats recently pegged the expected surplus at $68 billion, a preliminary number that will be updated in the governor’s proposal.

— A milestone from last year’s budget negotiation was reached on Monday, when the state opened access to full-scope Medi-Cal coverage for low-income residents age 50 and older who lack legal immigration status.

— A proposed ballot measure was abandoned this week for voters to redo their 2020 decision that allows full tax value reassessment of inherited homes. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. announced that its effort to modify Proposition 19 fell short of the signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot.

— Almost 82% of eligible Californians are now registered to vote, according to new state voter registration statistics released late last week by Secretary of State Shirley Weber. Democrats hold an almost 23-percentage-point lead in voter registration over Republicans.

California Controller Betty Yee.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California politics lightning round

— When legislators demanded answers about a failed $600-million COVID-19 mask contract in 2020, they weren’t told about the behind-the-scenes efforts of state Controller Betty Yee to push the deal across the finish line.

— In the wake of a sexual harassment and retaliation scandal roiling the administration of Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki, a new discovery: Nearly $85,000 in artwork donated to the university for public viewing was among the items destroyed when a massive wildfire burned her home to the ground.

— The contest in a new Southern California House district, which includes portions of Los Angeles and Orange counties, has turned into a mudslinging battle rife with accusations of racism, sexism and red-baiting between two Asian American candidates.

— In a break from recent tradition, there is no incumbent or well-known elected official among the candidates running to become L.A. city attorney.

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