[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
June 1 - 8, 2000


The golden GOP

Bush is making inroads into California. Plus, Rick Lazio's superficial appeal, and a plan by Central Massachusetts lawmakers to foul up Fenway financing

by Seth Gitell

A quiet development is stirring in the phony campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Bush is devoting time, energy, and resources to California. It's a marked change from the campaign strategy of the last GOP presidential candidate, Bob Dole, but Bush strategists think they can put California into play.

Although conventional wisdom says that polls conducted this early in a presidential campaign are notoriously unreliable, recent warning signals show that Gore's support is weakening in the Golden State. Polls showed Gore way ahead only weeks ago, but the margin has recently fallen to just a few percentage points: the Rasmussen Research poll actually shows Bush leading Gore in California, 37 to 36. Gore operatives will ignore these numbers at their peril.

In March, key Democrats dismissed the possibility of needing to place either Senator Dianne Feinstein or Governor Gray Davis on the presidential ticket, saying California and its 54 electoral votes were solidly locked up. But Bush, who has spent a lot of time in California of late, recently vowed, according to the Austin American-Statesman, "I'm going to win California."

This is of concern to Democrats because without California, their chances of winning the general election are next to nil. Bush's success there so far is seen in part as a reflection of Gore's own political weaknesses. In general, the perception has spread that Gore's popularity is capped, that voters already know who Gore is and don't like him. This perception could be fatal in a personality-driven state like California. Bush's public image continues to evolve, meanwhile, as he trots out positions on a myriad of issues, including Social Security and nuclear disarmament. Add to this the fact that Bush is continuing his foray into the Latino community (see "Talking Politics," News and Features, March 10), which makes up 15 percent of the voting public in California, and Gore could be in trouble.

US Representative Steven Kuykendall of California thinks Bush's support in the Golden State is growing. A moderate Republican, Kuykendall represents many of the beach communities in and around Los Angeles -- Venice, Marina Del Rey, Manhattan Beach. "Bush is bringing back some of the traditional Republican voters -- white male conservative voters, conservative Democratic voters. He's holding onto women voters. He's reaching out to Hispanic voters and, by osmosis, other ethnic voters as well," Kuykendall told the Phoenix.

The congressman has a personal interest in seeing Bush do well. Kuykendall, like fellow California representative James Rogan -- a Republican made particularly vulnerable because of his service as an impeachment manager -- is in a political fight for his life. He was elected by a two percent margin in 1998, and now faces an electoral challenge from former representative Jane Harman, who left the House to run for governor in 1998. He needs the push a strong presidential candidate can provide.

"He is certainly not harmful to my campaign. He clearly can be a positive force," says Kuykendall, a former member of the US Marine Corps and a Vietnam veteran. Bush has already paid a visit to Kuykendall's district, hosting a town meeting with Latinos at Loyola Marymount University. An extra bonus: the Spanish-language network Univision broadcast the event throughout the state.

All this represents a change for California Republicans such as Kuykendall, who struggled to survive when Dole (1996 presidential nominee) and Dan Lundgren (1998 gubernatorial nominee) headed up the GOP ticket. "He's giving a very strong showing for the Republican candidates," says Kuykendall. "Two years ago, the Republican on top of the ticket was a terrible loss. Two years before that, the Dole campaign, they stopped campaigning in California altogether. It took away an active political environment. The fact that his campaign had to pass on campaigning in California was harmful. Both of those cycles will be improved around by the performance of George W. Bush to date."

But Boston-based Democratic consultant Adam Hurtubise scoffs at the notion that California might be in play: "If they can win California in '92 and '96 with the [former governor] Pete Wilson machine trying to churn out votes for Bush and Dole, do you think with a Democratic governor in place and as a possible running mate and Dianne Feinstein as a possible running mate that any Democrat will have any trouble winning California?"

David Townsend, a Sacramento-based Democratic political consultant, says the Republicans are merely posturing so as not to alienate the big GOP donors in the Golden State. "When you hit fall, people will start paying attention, and there will go Bush's chances," says Townsend. "My guess is once they get into the later stages of the campaign, they will see the money will be much better spent elsewhere -- like the industrial-belt states of the Midwest. This is just gamesmanship."

Still, Kuykendall's hopes are high. "I think we've got a very good chance of Bush being able to win California. The Democratic convention in August will cause a bump for the Democrats; then it will settle back down and will start going back up Bush," he says.

If Kuykendall is right about anything, it's that the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to take place in Los Angeles August 14 through 17, will have an impact on the polls. The question is, what kind? With all the talk of Seattle-style protests at the convention, the potential for a Chicago 1968 type of conflagration cannot be ruled out. On the one hand, such a debacle could humiliate the Democrats and move the state into the Republican camp. On the other hand, the Democrats could rise to the occasion and lock the state up. "I think there's just as much chance it might help them," says Arnold Steinberg, a California conservative political strategist. "Gore could do a Sister Souljah and look like someone who acts strong." But Gore will likely do what he did in the Elián affair -- what he always does in such situations -- and attempt to split the difference. That won't make anyone happy. Except for W.

When US Representative Rick Lazio replaced New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani last week in the US Senate race against Hillary Clinton, political pundits were quick to suggest that he would outperform Giuliani because Lazio has few negatives. This line quickly became conventional wisdom, with some going so far as to suggest that Clinton must be really worried. Recent polls seemed to underscore this belief, showing Lazio pulling almost even with Clinton and doing well among women voters.

Over time, reality will set in. Lazio is a little-known but well-liked congressman much admired for his energy. But he is very much a second-tier politician vaulted into national prominence by the relatively weak Republican farm team in New York (sound familiar?) and the mentorship of former senator Alfonse D'Amato.

However, as the battle shifts to the issues, one substantive difference between Lazio and Giuliani could work in Lazio's favor. Where Giuliani made his reputation on fighting crime and promoting welfare reform, Lazio has been quietly working on building a domestic-programs portfolio -- an unusual approach for a Republican. Like D'Amato, Lazio has placed a premium on bringing home substantive aid for his district and home state, serving as chair of the Housing and Community Opportunity subcommittee and joining the House banking committee.

Lazio made his political bones in a 1998 battle with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo. Ironically, it was Cuomo who proposed a budget that slashed federal housing aid for the elderly and poor. Cuomo took particular aim at a program known as Section 202 housing, which provides housing subsidies for senior citizens. Instinctively sensing a good position that could win over a population segment that votes in high proportions -- senior citizens -- Lazio took on Cuomo and won. Now Lazio will look for votes from senior citizens over Clinton, the woman whose husband would have cut the aid. At the time, Lazio's office faxed me a statement in response to a question about the issue: "Unfortunately, over the past four years, the administration has repeatedly proposed cutting millions of dollars to these programs. In fact the administration wanted to eliminate the program in 1996 and proposed nearly $900 million in cuts over the past three years."

If anything, the housing issue has only ripened since two years ago. As has been widely reported in this newspaper and is evident to anyone who pays rent, affordable housing has become a very important issue to voters. That's as true throughout the New York City metropolitan area and Long Island as it is here in Boston. What makes it even hotter is that Cuomo is now serving as a major behind-the-scenes strategist for Clinton and will likely campaign for her. Lazio's housing stance will make attacks from them difficult. At the least, it will immunize Lazio from charges of being a Newt Gingrich clone.

"He's really looking at the housing as not just one piece of pork -- and at how it affects the country," says William Rapfogel, the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. "People in New York care a great deal about this. With housing prices at such a great cost, the federal government has got to come up with affordable housing for families and seniors. Lazio's been very good on that. It makes him very compelling to those who have concerns about seniors and social services. It makes him seem human."

There's no question that Lazio is the conservative candidate in this race -- but a moderate kind of conservative. Although pro-choice, he voted to override President Clinton's veto of the partial-birth-abortion ban. However, he also worked behind the scenes to restore funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. But no matter which way you look at it, since the Democrats have given up on retaking the Senate, the most important political ramification of a Lazio victory would be the hit that Clinton's political future would take.

Representative William McManus, an independent from Worcester, is concocting a little bit of mischief on the Fenway front. McManus is pushing for the passage of a bill amendment that would link state aid for a new Red Sox ballpark to funds for a new Worcester ballpark.

On the surface, the move is an attempt to provide Worcester with equity at a time when so much funding may go to Boston. It's fair to point out that Worcester got its convention center by linking funding for it to the construction of the Hynes Convention Center.

On further examination, the measure can be seen as something quite different -- a poison pill that will surely be mirrored by similar provisions for other cities in Massachusetts, all of which will combine to make the ballpark price tag prohibitive. Keep in mind that McManus is a lieutenant of House Speaker Tom Finneran. This could provide Finneran with an escape hatch that will shield the House from blame.

"Of course it's a poison pill," says Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman.

Adds another observer: "Remember, the majority of representatives come from outside Boston. They already aren't getting new roads and bridges because of the Big Dig. . . . Most of the constituents don't even go to Fenway. You're once again faced with taking a difficult vote knowing that the people who are voting for it have little or no benefit."

Worcester political operatives say this analysis is a bit too sophisticated. They want the Red Sox to relax rules barring two minor-league baseball teams from playing in adjacent counties. Because Worcester County touches Providence County, which has the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Sox won't allow a minor-league franchise to play in Worcester. If the Sox will bend this rule, some say, Worcester County representatives will approve the public-financing deal for a new stadium.

The two scenarios aren't mutually exclusive. They reflect the relative power of the central part of the state at a time when Boston's financial needs are stretching the Commonwealth severely. One thing is sure: the Red Sox' prospects could rise and fall with the several blocs of legislators -- Springfield, Worcester, Southeastern Massachusetts -- whose people won't benefit from a new Fenway.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.

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