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California vote tests discontent

The disillusionment of Southern California renews itself each morning, as suburban commuters pack ribbon-like freeways and crawl into the city through the light brown haze that tints the view of the San Gabriel Mountains. They leave their children at lagging schools on the way to jobs increasingly threatened by defense cuts and recession. By day's end, some have spent four hours in their cars, driving 200 miles round trip to the only safe, comfortable neighborhoods they can afford.

"This has been a state of hope and promise and opportunity," says Mickey Kantor, a lawyer and Democratic Party activist in Los Angeles. "Remember what's on the California state seal _ "Eureka,' which means, "we've found it.' "

In 1990, Kantor adds, people here "are believing that may not be true. For the first time, Californians are worried."

Come now two candidates for California governor: Dianne Feinstein, the tall, striking, former mayor of San Francisco, and Pete Wilson, a cautious, plain-vanilla U.S. senator.

Feinstein, the Democrat, promises "change," which Californians seem to want but aren't sure government can deliver anymore. They worry, too, about the cost of change, so Wilson warns: "Can we afford Dianne Feinstein as governor?"

How voters resolve the tension between those views will decide this close election. And since California is often a bellwether, the outcome may offer clues to America's direction as it braces for tough times.

There are significant political parallels between state and nation. Both confront a backlog of social and economic problems and high budget deficits at the same time.

Both feature divided government, pitting Republican executives against entrenched, Democratic-controlled legislative bodies. And both suffer the scorn of citizens who increasingly view their political leaders as self-interested, perhaps corrupt and certainly ineffectual.

Bypassing officeholders altogether, state voters will decide for themselves some 28 ballot initiatives on controversial issues ranging from sweeping environmental reforms to increased liquor taxes to term limits on the governor and legislators.

"Public disgust with elected officials in both parties is at the highest level I've seen in my 25 years of being involved," observes Steve Merksamer, a Sacramento lawyer and former chief of staff to outgoing Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. "They're rapidly losing confidence in the ability of federal, state and local governments to deal with the problems facing our society."

For the gubernatorial candidates and their parties _ if not their constituents _ the stakes are immense. The winner assumes the second biggest executive office in America and instantly becomes a contender for the biggest, as a potential nominee for president or vice president.

The governorship means a big seat at the table when the Legislature apportions the 52 U.S. House seats California will get following the 1990 census. The new district lines for this largest state delegation in history _ one-eighth of the entire House _ are important to GOP hopes of regaining control of Congress.

Moreover, the contest previews Democratic prospects for defeating George Bush in 1992. Strategists agree the party has little chance of recapturing the White House if it can't carry California.

Says Feinstein campaign manager Bill Carrick: "It says a lot about where the party is nationally."

Though Feinstein and Wilson, both 57 years old, will spend more than $25-million by Election Day, it's tough just getting a hearing in this massive state of 30-million people. Their television ads compete for attention with the heavily financed campaigns for and against the ballot initiatives.

On the campaign trail, Feinstein tells the story of phoning a California labor leader earlier this year. When Feinstein identified herself, the official's secretary asked her to spell her name.

"Then she said, "May I tell (him) about what you're calling?' And I said, "My candidacy for governor.'

"And then there was a long pause. And she said, "All right, just tell me, governor of what?' "

Feinstein cut through the clutter and surged to victory in the Democratic primary with a powerful TV commercial dubbed "The Grabber." It replayed the moment that thrust her to political prominence: her announcement, to the shrieks and gasps of onlookers, of the 1978 murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

That dramatic scene remains a staple of her TV ads, but the electricity that once attended her campaign has ebbed. In speeches last week to Los Angeles business executives and to the Hollywood Radio and Television Society, she received the mildest of applause as she drummed away at her bedrock theme.

"Californians want change," Feinstein told the business group, Town Hall, at a luncheon meeting inside a hotel ballroom. "They want their streets safer. They want their water cleaner. They want to put growth under control. They want to bring budgets into line. . . . I believe deep in my heart that the candidacy of change and leadership stands before you."

Wilson, whom Feinstein mocks as "another beige Republican" like Deukmejian, is if anything less exciting. Addressing a California League of Cities convention by satellite hookup from Washington last week, the one-time San Diego mayor proved he could talk municipal with anybody, dropping phrases like "the fiscalization of land use" and "long-term demographic and econometric forecasts."

Wilson uses TV ads to supplement his bland image with displays of determination and compassion for crack babies and crime victims. The narrator's tag line: "The power of an idea, and the will to make it happen."

On the most emotionally charged issues, the two are indistinguishable. Feinstein, defying liberal orthodoxy, matches Wilson in support of the death penalty. Wilson, breaking with GOP conservatives, joins her in backing abortion rights.

Each asks voters to consider "a tale of two cities." Wilson contrasts her San Francisco tax increases with his San Diego tax cuts; Feinstein says hers was a bigger, tougher job. Invoking Dickens, she calls it "the best of times . . . for thinking anew" but "the worst of times for the status quo and for doing business as usual."

So far, the back-and-forth has served mainly to firm up each party's traditional supporters. Feinstein leads in more Democratic northern California, including San Francisco, Wilson in conservative San Diego and Orange counties to the south. A gender gap gave him a three-point lead in a Los Angeles Times survey last week, as his 11-point advantage among men outstripped her four-point margin among women.

Democrats like Sandy Elles, a tour boat skipper and municipal official from Sonoma County who attended the League of Cities meeting in Anaheim, say Feinstein will exercise "leadership" on social issues such as growth management, the environment and education. Per-pupil school spending has fallen to 29th in the nation, she complains, and student SAT scores have dropped two consecutive years.

Republicans like Kathy Lund, a City Council member in the white-collar Sacramento suburb of Rocklin, fear Feinstein's "leadership" means expensive programs. "The state of California is looking at higher taxes and spending if Feinstein is elected," predicts Lund, who says there's already "too much waste" and bureaucracy.

The election likely will be decided, strategists say, by the swing voters in the agricultural Central Valley and the vast, populous suburbs surrounding Los Angeles. And those suburban voters _ buffeted by growth that swelled California's population 25 percent in the 1980s _ are in a cranky mood.

"It used to be you get on the freeway by 6 o'clock you could get anywhere you want in a half-hour or 45 minutes," laments Hank Gray, 43, a landscape contractor from Lakewood. "Now you've got to be on there at 5:30 or 5."

Gray points to problems with drugs and gangs; a state senator's granddaughter was recently involved in a drive-by shooting. And the median price for a single family home in California has risen to $200,000, which Gray calls "an absolute joke."

Further clouding the smoggy horizon is the prospect of recession. A slowdown in defense-related industries, services, transportation and construction increased unemployment in five of the six Southern California counties last month, and it's above 1989 levels in all six. With landscape work sputtering, Gray has taken a paid job with the Chamber of Commerce.

Hoping to capitalize, Feinstein links Wilson to the mess in Deukmejian's Sacramento and Bush's Washington and casts herself as an outsider. She would be the first woman governor in California history, and says the fractious, ethnically diverse state needs "a little mothering."

But a highly popular ballot proposal to limit the terms of state office-holders has given the senator _ who now refers to his time in Washington as "exile" _ a potent comeback. Wilson supports it and Feinstein opposes it.

The Democrat seeks a boost of her own from another initiative, known simply as Big Green. The massive, 16,000-word environmental proposition, which Feinstein supports and Wilson opposes, would create an environmental "czar," outlaw pesticides found to have caused cancer, and reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbons that damage the ozone lawyer.

Feinstein touts Big Green on the stump. But the measure's once-overwhelming popularity has faded as opponents bashed a controversial Big Green backer, one-time student radical Tom Hayden, and warned of dire consequences for business and agriculture.

And paradoxically, GOP strategists insist the bad news on the economy and Bush's flip-flop on his no-new-taxes pledge is helping Wilson, not hurting him. With federal taxes headed up, they reason, voters will choose the gubernatorial candidate most likely to keep state taxes low.

On the other hand, the electorate that launched a nationwide tax revolt with Proposition 13 in 1978 has lately proven it will support some higher levies targeted to essential programs. In June, Californians voted narrowly to double the state gas tax to finance transportation improvements.

"If the undecided voters think they're voting for change, (Feinstein) wins," says John Emerson, chief deputy city attorney of Los Angeles and a prominent Democrat. "If they're concerned about uncertainty in the economy and want a steady hand, that's going to help Wilson."

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