With polls showing the Democratic presidential candidates losing ground to President George Bush, centrist Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana on July 28 blamed the leftward drift of most of the candidates, and likened the Democrats' plight to "assisted suicide."
But in California, the shoe is on the other foot. In California, it is the elected Republicans who are poisoning themselves, and it is a rightward drift that has helped fuel voter flight that has left Republicans with only about 35 percent of registered California voters.
No matter which Republicans run against Gray Davis, whether conservative or moderate, the recall will shine a light on Sacramento's elected Republicans and the views that have turned them into an isolated minority just when the Republican Party has an unexpected chance to win a governorship.
Gray Davis intends to make political hay out of the furthest-right ideas proposed this political season by Sacramento's Republicans. Then he plans to tar the various Republican candidates as plotting to uphold these ideals, even if that's a bunch of bunk.
Pigheaded elected Republicans in Sacramento are almost gleefully providing Davis with ammo. These Republicans clearly suffer from a collective tin ear when it comes to what Californians-a moderate crowd who believe in the death penalty but support saving the redwoods-really want from their government.
A glaring example of this is the Republican take on the environment, and a case in point is Republican behavior toward a bill that just arrived on Davis' desk, the first law in the nation to ban several flame-retardant chemicals known as PBDEs.
PBDEs have transferred to humans, whales and large fish in alarming quantities, showing up in breast milk of nursing women and in their infants. It is not known exactly how PBDEs move from foam upholstery, car dashboards, TV and computer housings and carpets into living things. But early studies show the chemicals are doubling in humans in the U.S. and Canada every five years.
Some scientists say PBDEs are the most "bio-accumulating" compound to appear in 50 years, since the horrors of DDT and PCBs. It is not yet known what effect PBDEs have on humans. Scientists can only say that PBDEs interfere with the hormones and thyroid gland that regulate brain growth.
Limited studies conducted on San Francisco-area women by the state's Environmental Protection Agency show that they had, on average, 10 to 70 times the PBDEs found in Europeans. In Europe, manufacturers voluntarily stopped using the chemicals, now banned by the European Union. In the U.S., IBM and IKEA have voluntarily stopped using bio-accumulating PBDEs.
Industry groups hotly opposed the original bill banning PBDEs in California. The bill, AB 302, authored by Democrat Wilma Chan of Alameda, was poorly conceived, banning versions of PBDE that are not showing up in mammals in high concentrations. That bill would have needlessly taken lifesaving flame-retardants off the market.
But Chan's final bill was different. Industry, begrudgingly facing approval by the majority Democrats, said it could live with it. The bill left manufacturers with several PBDEs to use as flame retardants, as in Europe, and allowed five years to get rid of the most "bio-accumulating" forms, penta and octa PBDEs.
Making a rare push for a pending bill, California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Winston Hickox, wrote that the ban "builds upon the experiences in Europe and provides leadership for the rest of the United States. ...The bill takes decisive action to abate an emerging health and environmental threat...."
Yet all but four Republicans opposed the ban. Republican supporters included two often pro-environment senators, Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz and Jeff Denham of Modesto, and two members of the Assembly, Shirley Horton of Bonita and Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria.
Why did 40 other Republicans vote no after the industry itself relented? What audience do the Republicans imagine they are playing to? Have elected Republicans heard the counterintuitive news that in Sacramento, the vast majority of big business campaign bucks flow to the majority Democrats and only a fraction of big business money is given to the minority Republicans? Just who in the hell are the Republicans protecting?
One of the most outspoken opponents of the ban, Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian of Stockton, says Chan's original bill was so bad, "it completely eliminated the three most common flame retardants used in commerce whether they were accumulating in animals or not. These are the most effective flame-retardants we know of... and they save many lives. "
Fine. Chan's bill sucked. But why did Aghazarian hotly oppose the compromise bill? He says he wants more study, in part because the compounds that are banned have not been proved to actually harm humans.
"It sets a bad precedent," says Aghazarian. "Are we going to start removing and eliminating and banning things just because somebody writes a report that is speculative at best?"
Republican mulishness on the environment reminds me of the 1970s, when Southern Californians were choking on smog. I am not exaggerating when I say that tears would flow, merely from riding along on the smoky blue freeways. The South Coast Air Quality Management District was formed despite fierce opposition by scions of industry and business leaders who said that cutting the smog would kill jobs and cast an economic pall.
Yes, some extremely polluting businesses were driven out. But smog control spawned a vibrant industry of smog control products, technicians, engineers and companies, and fantastic inventions that gave us heat or cold, better insulation and appliances, yet used less energy and thus produced less smog.
California's economy thrived in direct response to smog control. Southern California neighborhoods-once blanketed in a brown pancake of ozone, from Pasadena on the east to Woodland Hills on the west- became desirable again.
Elected Republicans could have learned a lesson from the AQMD miracle, and the booming business, renewed livability and clean, crisp air (now threatened by growth and a dramatic spike in personal smog created by emissions from wildly inefficient SUVs).
But elected Republicans failed to learn. Odd, since polls show that most Republican voters see themselves as environmentalists and are willing to pay higher taxes to save the environment.
According to a Zogby Poll of 2,031 GOP-leaning voters in Iowa, South Carolina, New York, California and New Hampshire conducted for the 2000 presidential primary, protecting the environment was the sixth-most-popular issue, behind such things as fighting crime, keeping a strong defense and improving education.
Assemblyman Keith Richman, a San Fernando Valley doctor, is among the most liberal Republicans in Sacramento. Yet Richman opposed the ban on PBDEs because he is concerned that alternative flame-retardants might prove less effective and even result in more burn injuries or burn deaths.
"There are always unintended consequences to legislation," he said. "We added MTBE [to gasoline] to make it safer and it turned out to make things worse when it was supposed to clean things up," he says. "What do we really know about the effects of PBDEs?"
In some other year, that question is a good topic for debate.
But this year, that's not the question at all.
The only question is: Don't the Republicans grasp that this is an election year, and the election at hand is the recall of Gray Davis?
This year, when 40 Republicans vote against a ban on a creepy compound showing up in babies in California, that easily becomes a TV ad to save Gray Davis. Everything the Republicans do in Sacramento, and everything the Democrats do in Sacramento, is now fodder for the recall.
The Sacramento Democrats-always far more sly than the Republicans-understand this to the bottom of their toes.
In a blatant play to buy back the votes of Latinos who support recall, for example, Davis has publicly promised to sign a controversial Democratic bill allowing drivers' licenses for illegal aliens. Unlike a similar bill Davis vetoed last fall, this new bill does not even require the illegal aliens to apply for U.S. citizenship. And in a move designed to attract a fat infusion of campaign funds, Davis is expected to sign a Democratic bill giving rich Indian tribes a say over the environmental impact of developments within five miles of tribal burial sites-a law almost certain to put a nasty clamp on badly needed housing in California.
When Davis begins his flurry of bill-signings in mid-September, expect the biggest giveaway since Who Wants to be a Millionaire? This will lead to incredibly bad policy, and may even border on recklessness, but Davis is past all that now. Survival reigns supreme.
Meanwhile, Sacramento Republicans will continue refusing to accept that they are pawns in a uniquely bare-knuckled election year, and will blindly take positions or put forth laws on hot-button issues that are to the right of most California voters.
Republican pigheadedness has helped sink the party in California in recent years. Their blindness on the environment alone is one big reason why Gray Davis may indeed fight back from the brink of political extinction.Write to jillstewart@SDcitybeat.com.