Mixed results in California elections

Republican Pombo, opponent of the environment, goes down to defeat

Among the most significant election results in California was the 53-47 percent victory of wind power engineer Jerry McNerney over seven-term U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo in the 11th Congressional District, despite a Republican 7-point advantage in voter registrations. The war in Iraq, the environment, and Washington scandals were key issues in the northern California race.

McNerney is among the 34 California Democrats elected to the House of Representatives Nov. 7. Combined they are the largest and arguably the most powerful and most progressive Democratic state delegation. Rep. Nancy Pelosi is expected to be speaker of the House, Reps. Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey have co-chaired the Progressive Caucus, while Rep. Maxine Waters has led the Out of Iraq Caucus. Seven Latino representatives will play a key role in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Veteran legislators Henry Waxman, George Miller and Tom Lantos will likely head the Government Operations; Education and the Workplace; and International Relations committees, respectively.

As chair of the House Resources Committee, Pombo — a Central Valley rancher — tried to gut the Endangered Species Act, promoted increased oil and gas drilling including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and was linked to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Unlike Pombo, who supports the Iraq war, McNerney calls for a phased U.S. withdrawal.

Besides labor backing, McNerney gained support from Pombo’s Republican primary opponents including legendary antiwar, pro-environment former Rep. Pete McCloskey.

By early fall, McNerney and Pombo were neck-and-neck. Environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the League of Conservation Voters, spent over $1 million and mobilized many volunteers for McNerney. The national Democratic Party poured in financial and other support in the final weeks.

McNerney also benefited from demographic changes in the district, including the many working-class people who have come from the Bay Area in search of affordable housing. Though eight-term Republican Rep. John Doolittle won in the 4th CD, similar factors were at work. Democratic challenger Charlie Brown gained 46 percent of the vote to Doolittle’s 49 percent in the district, which runs from the Sacramento suburbs to the Oregon and Nevada borders.

In North San Diego County’s 50th CD, Republican Brian Bilbray’s Democratic opponent Francine Busby, with limited funds, picked up over 43 percent of the vote in a district where Democratic registration is only 30 percent.

Mega-money, media, celebrity status and work by top-level Bush campaign operatives helped propel Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to re-election by a decisive 56 percent, despite a determined campaign by labor and others for his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, who took 39 percent.

Having worked hard to appear a moderate after his ballot measures lost overwhelmingly last year, Schwarzenegger benefited from media coverage of carefully staged bill signings, including the much-touted Global Warming Solutions Act, as well as a constant anti-Angelides media drumbeat. Schwarzenegger was able to parlay his multibillion-dollar infrastructure bond issue proposals into bipartisan negotiations in which the Democrat-dominated Legislature gained affordable housing and mass transit while the governor profited from an aura of bipartisan harmony. He also grossly misrepresented Angelides’ proposals to raise taxes on the very rich and to close corporate tax loopholes.

Though Schwarzenegger swore in his first campaign to stay clear of “special interests,” he has raised over $113 million since then, much of it from out-of-state donors and big corporate interests. His administration has included high-ranking staffers from the technology, health care, lumber and agriculture industries as well as the Chamber of Commerce.

The governor’s vetoes of progressive legislation, including universal single-payer health coverage and restoration of benefits to totally disabled workers, and his refusal to index a $1 an hour minimum wage hike to inflation, also revealed the “real Arnold.”

Republican hopes of riding Schwarzenegger’s coattails for further gains in state and legislative offices had limited impact. Republican incumbent Secretary of State Bruce McPherson was defeated by Democratic state Sen. Debra Bowen. However, billionaire high-tech businessman Steve Poizner won the race for insurance commissioner over Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante by over 12 percent. Poizner flooded the airwaves with racist-tinged ads about “cruising with Cruz,” a thinly veiled allusion to the stereotype of low-riding Latino “gang-bangers.”

The state legislative races, despite many seats open due to term limits, made basically no change in the large majorities of Democrats in both Assembly and Senate.

mbechtel @ pww.org