A California primary that matters

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

This is not a typical California election.

The voter pamphlets arrived with late holiday cards, like wonky season’s greetings.

The presidential candidates showed up to actually meetvoters, not just pocket checks from the state’s bountiful fundraising machines.

And the major parties’ primary elections for president are, stunningly, competitive--leaving the state’s politicos atwitter at the thought that California might just matter, for the first time in a generation or two.

The presidential contest will largely determine who turns out Feb. 5 or -- in the case of at least half the voters -- mails in their choice. But there are other matters on the ballot as well that will be decided, for better or worse, when the votes are counted.

Cities and school districts across the state will be deciding local measures, many of them revolving around taxes.

Statewide, one measure would ban officials from using gasoline sales tax receipts in the general fund rather than for their intended use, transportation needs. But the coalition that placed it on the ballot is now urging a no vote because last year, after it qualified, voters passed a measure that would accomplish much the same thing.

The switch created an only-in-California oddity for careful readers of the Secretary of State’s voter guide: The “pro” argument reads: “Prop. 91 is no longer needed. Please vote no.”

Another measure would establish independent community college districts and guarantee minimum funding for the system.

If little has been said of those two measures, others have been debated in competing television ads.

One would reorder the state’s term limits, allowing 12 years of service in one house rather than the current limitations of six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. Unspoken in the “Yes” side’s advertising is that it would allow Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), Senate president Don Perata (D-Oakland) and more than two dozen other officeholders to keep jobs they otherwise would lose.

The leaders originally promised to push term limits changes in tandem with an effort to redraw district boundary lines into competitive seats, but the latter never materialized.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once vowed never to endorse the term limits measure unless it were teamed with redistricting, last week reversed himself and announced that he would back it.

The measure, Proposition 93, is the reason Californians will vote for president in February. If the matter had been on the usual primary ballot -- this year the statewide primary for legislative seats is in June -- the change would have come too late for Nuñez, Perata and others to file for another term. Up moved the presidential primary, and with it the term limits measure.

“The political ambitions of the current speaker might be a factor in who the next president of the United States will be,” marveled Allan Hoffenblum, who runs the Target Book, a nonpartisan compendium of political races.

And then there is the block of Propositions 94 through 97, which have dominated the airwaves.

They would let stand compacts approved by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature that permit four Indian tribes to expand their casinos in Riverside and San Diego counties. The battle has pitted two well-financed forces -- the tribes against California racetracks, which have been trying for years, without success, to add gambling devices.

The tribes’ campaign, featuring the governor, builds on years of feel-good advertisements by the Indians. But the opposition’s ads highlight the views of firefighter and teacher unions, two of the state’s most potent electoral forces, and ones which have defeated Schwarzenegger in past ballot measure battles.

The question now is how much has reached voters.

“I don’t think a lot of voters have a real sense of what . . . the initiatives are,” said Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic strategist from San Francisco.

He and others point out that although the typical California ballot has myriad propositions, this year’s features only two subjects, term limits and gambling, that have been discussed much.

“Both of those are very confusing,” said Dave Gilliard, a Sacramento-based Republican strategist. “Neither will drive turnout at all. We are entirely dependent on the presidential race for turnout.”

Gale Kaufman, the strategist leading the term limits measure, said voters are slowly becoming aware of the February primary.

“There’s certainly more awareness this week than last,” she said, citing a hike when mail-in ballots were released Jan. 7. “But still I would say probably 50% of voters, if they were honest, would say they don’t know [the propositions]. . . . “

A paucity of advertising has contributed to the election’s anonymity. Among the presidential campaigns, Democrat Barack Obama has aired an ad only in the Bay Area, and Hillary Clinton began running her first ad in selected markets Thursday.

In part, that reflects the expense of campaigning in California, where an ad that runs often enough to catch voters’ attention statewide can cost $2.5 million a week.

“That’s an awful lot of chips to put on California,” said Lehane.

A recent Times Poll found Clinton leading Obama in California, though not by the broad margin she enjoyed last year, with John Edwards trailing.

The Republican race was led by John McCain, trailed narrowly by Mitt Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mike Huckabee. All were within the poll’s margin of error.

The presidential contest has injected uncertainty into California’s election. Nonpartisans -- nearly one in every five state voters -- can cast ballots in the Democratic primary, which splits the appeal the candidates must make.

Then there is the matter of turnout, which has exploded this year on the Democratic side. Many of the additional voters are first-timers whose judgments can be unpredictable.

“No one can tell you with any level of accuracy what the turnout is going to look like here,” Kaufman said. “It’s unusual to be sitting here running a campaign and have no idea what turnout is going to be.”