Reality Bites Back

Random Lengths News | October 28, 2005
California has long been viewed as a trendsetter with initiatives, beginning with their very introduction by progressive Governor Hiram Johnson in 1910. Even if ideas start somewhere else, California’s size, diversity and visibility give them a boost to national prominence that’s become a recurrent part of national politics, and this year’s special election—backed by Governor Schwarzenegger’s star power—promised to be a dozy.

But that’s not quite how things are turning out.

“There’s no there there,” said Long Beach State Senator Alan Lowenthal, reflecting on the starkly diminished scope of the measures that has a huge majority of voters upset about a costly election that seems to have no reason for being, aside from the governor’s ego.

“It started off as the year of great reform. The governor had a number of initiatives to go directly to the people,” Lowenthal recalled. “But things were not fully vetted. What started off as a grand plan to reform government ended up being a shell of that.”

Not that there’s nothing on the ballot. Local State Senator Deborah Bowen warns, “Proposition 75 is part of a national effort to try and silence both Democrats and organized labor. There’s already a process by which people can opt out of having any of their union dues going for political purposes. This flips the standard around by requiring unions to get permission from their members beforehand.” Corporations face no such restrictions on spending shareholder’s money, Bowen notes.

Prop 75 could severely undercut the power of unions to protect their workers in the political realm—fighting off cuts in nurse-patient staffing ratios, or measures like the ones Arnold didn’t put on the ballot. These include his plan to cut survivor benefits for firefighters, police and other public safety workers, and the possibility of a poorly designed merit pay plan that would have actually pulled top teachers away from the schools that need them most.

Prop 76 would cut guaranteed school funding by nearly $4 billion, and dramatically shift the balance of power in state government, giving the governor near-dictatorial powers to cut spending outside negotiations with the legislature.

Prop 77 could force mid-decade redistricting using neutral-sounding formulas that could pack Democratic voters more densely in their districts than Republicans are packed in theirs. A similar scheme in Pennsylvania gives the GOP a 12-7 advantage in congressional seats, despite a rough tie in statewide votes for Congress. Prop 73 would introduce a parental notification law for teenage abortions that recent research suggest would do little to reduce abortions, but could make them more dangerous.

But Schwarzenegger started off with much bigger plans than these, which—from his point of view—would primarily set the stage for next year’s political battles, giving the advantage to one side or the other. Originally he thought he could win those battles in one fell swoop on November 8.

“We’re having a special election on a lot of issues that have not been well thought out,” Lowenthal warned. “It’s occurred at the same time that the governor’s popularity has decreased,” reducing the chances that most of his measures will pass, and producing an election whose national significance is decreased. Still the vast majority of Californians who don’t want the special election and see it as a waste of scarce state money should not just stay away.

“You have to go the polls and actively say no,” Lowenthal said. “No means no. But it means you must actively exercise your right to vote and say ‘no’ there” at the ballot box.

Rather than influencing national politics, this election is reflecting how dramatically national politics has changed since early this year when Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session to try to get the legislature to pass his sweeping changes themselves. Since then, Schwarzenegger’s job approval has plummeted, along with that of Bush and the Republican Congress.

The collapse of public support for the GOP has hampered the campaign In February, Bush’s approval peaked at 57-40, a net approval of 17 points in Gallup’s nationwide poll. It’s now down to 39-58, a net disapproval of 19 points, a decline of 36 points. Schwarzenegger’s figures are similar: up 55-35—a net approval of 20 points—in a February Field Poll, reversed to 36-52—a net disapproval of 16 points—in a late August Field Poll. Also a 36-point decline. The GOP Congress did slightly better, according to Gallup, falling from 56-39 approval in February—15 points net approval—to 40-50 disapproval in October, 10 points net disapproval. This represents “only” a 25 point decline.

In numerous ways, some highly visible, most not. Bush and Schwarzenegger clashed publicly, with Bush doing fundraising here in California when Schwarzenegger asked him not to before the election. Schwarzenegger, in turn, refused to join Bush at a Ronald Reagan Presidential Library ceremony. When he first ran for governor, Schwarzenegger had originally bragged that he could be more effective in getting money and legislation for California. He would be “the Collectinator,” he said.

"For each dollar that we have been paying in federal taxes, we only have been getting back 77 cents. So I want to collect some of that money,'' he said, repeatedly.

But little has changed, and the money keeps flowing elsewhere, primarily to red states, where they rail against big government and blue states like California. With poll numbers so low, “The Schwarzenegger/Bush brouhaha, occurring in the midst of sagging poll numbers for both men, further weakens their appeal,” the Los Angeles Times wrote recently. But some critics suggest that neither man wanted to be dragged down by the other.

Still, money, deceptively oversimplified TV ad campaigns and low voter turnout could combine to save some of Schwarzenegger’s measures, as well as those of political allies. And this could have national significance as well.

“California is not just a blue state, on the issue of protecting reproductive rights, it’s really a leader,” explained Jennifer Nadeau, Director of Communications at the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), the leading national reproductive health think tank. “If this initiative [Prop 73], passes in California, the right may be emboldened introduce this kind of thing in the states that don’t have this.”

Yet, most Californians seem unaware of the fateful decision before them. “We’re in this general malaise around the special election,” said Kathy Kinear, President/CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. Many people remain unaware of the election itself, while Prop 73 has gotten less attention than Schwarzenegger’s initiatives. Miriam Gerace, Communications Coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, reports something similar, “from our perspective on the ground, and outreach to voters.”

Parental notification sounds like a good idea, and so those who become aware of the initiative tend to support it initially. But, Gerace pointed out, “The interesting thing is that the more people hear about it the worse it sounds.” Planned Parenthood has a lot of experience dealing with teen pregnancy issues, and working to facilitate mother-daughter communication. Where parental communication already exists, Prop 73 would be superfluous. Where it’s lacking, experienced counselors doubt that a law will do much good—and recent research backs them up.

A review of three decades of research by Cynthia Dailard at AGI showed that:

* Mandatory parental involvement may lead to teens having abortions later in pregnancy, when abortion is more risky.

* Forcing teens to inform their parents that they are pregnant or seeking an abortion may place some at risk of physical violence or abuse.

Such studies are a reason that medical groups, such as the California Medical Association, oppose Prop 73.

But Prop 73 proponents, such as Jay Hernandez, a leading lay Catholic activist, also claim that people become more supportive on learning more. “Generally speaking, when we discuss this with the general population, they question whether it is true or not” that teenage girls can have an abortion without parental notification, he pointed out. It takes a while for people to absorb, he claimed.

Major funding for Prop 73 comes from just three wealthy conservative Catholics. James Holman, publisher of the San Diego Reader and several lay Catholic publications, is far and away the main backer. He is joined by vintner Don Sebastiani and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.

But passing Prop 73 will depend on a lot of activists—and voters—who are not conservatives. The Catholic Bishops, and other arms of the Catholic Church in California are supporting it, including activists who are anti-war and anti-death penalty as well, embracing the “seamless garment of life” doctrine putting them more at odds than not with those trying to make hay off their activism.

This is just one more wrinkle in a story where sweeping generalizations are bound to be made the day after election day. But the real story may have already been written. Whatever the outcome, new issues, highlighted nationally by Katrina, rising gas prices, and the erosion of trust in Republican governance, have increasingly pulled people back from the distracting superhero narrative that Bush and Schwarzenegger have woven around themselves. Reality is biting us back.

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