National Catholic Register


California Voters Seen as Barometer for the Nation

BY Karen Walker

June 21-27, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/21/98 at 1:00 PM


LOS ANGELES—As California goes, so goes the nation — or so think many political analysts who say that issues debated and either approved or rejected by California voters often end up in other states' referendums.

George Forsyth, political scientist, former foreign service officer, and current executive director of the Catholic Campaign for America, concurs. He believes that because California has the largest and most diverse state population, it could act as a little laboratory for testing ideas, policies, and even movies.

“In many ways, it's the most modern, most advanced part of the United States,” Forsyth said, “so things that are trends [there] today, have historically become trends later in the more established parts of the country. In terms of modern America, [California] is a social, economic, and cultural sample. You couldn't have a better sample.”

Because California offers a political barometer for issues that could create a ripple effect of similar impact on other states, the Register took a broad look at some key issues raised in the state's June primary.

In addition to several hotly contested congressional races and a crucial gubernatorial race, California voters recently considered several propositions that would have far-reaching consequences on the state's education and work environment.

From the beginning, the stage of California's latest primary election was dramatically different. Per the wishes of last season's voters, California experienced its first open primary, in which registered party members were free to vote for candidates of another party affiliation. Some analysts felt this would be a good indicator of general election results, but it's too early to assess such a hefty voting procedure change. Political strategists are still experimenting with the new field of political maneuvering now open to them.

In one high-profile congressional race in Southern California, for example, pundits question whether the uncontested Democratic candidate, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, influenced cross-over voters to choose former Congressman Bob Dornan (R), who lost his seat to Sanchez in a close election two years ago, over another Republican contender, Lisa Hughes. There's no certainty about the motives in the resulting Dornan-Sanchez race, but some analysts believe that the open primary affords uncontested candidates the opportunity to “choose” their opponents in the general election, a strategy that is much more difficult to carry out in a closed primary situation.

Others believe that open primaries will be a good indicator of general election results. One political commentator, Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, noted that although the June primary drew an unusually high number of Democratic voters, the party's candidates for three vacant statewide and several national offices pulled relatively poorly, indicating a potentially tough upcoming battle for the state's majority party. Either way, analysts nationwide are watching the effects of open primaries in California closely.

The state's battle for governor will be fierce. Pro-choice proponents are already trying to make abortion the key issue against pro-life state Attorney General Dan Lungren. One underlying and oft-ignored issue has much broader implications, though — that of redistricting in the census-taking year of 2000.

Although voter registration reveals a 51% Democrat to 49% Republican split statewide, California's voting districts have been among the nation's most creatively drawn, in an attempt to ensure the greatest number of Democrat representatives at the state and national levels. The issue, while not unique to California, yields exaggerated national consequences here because of the large number of representatives (52) it sends to Congress.

Because the governor plays a crucial role in guiding the redistricting that occurs with every new census, the battle clearly is about more than the gubernatorial candidates' victory or defeat.

Among the initiatives considered by California voters this June, two were of particular note. Proposition 226, a measure that was defeated, could have dealt a mighty blow to the political clout of labor unions. The initiative would have prevented unions from spending any portion of a member's dues for political purposes without the member's written consent. Referred to as “paycheck protection,” this measure attacked what some call the Achilles' heel of labor political power.

Historically, unions have poured most of their political contributions into liberal causes and Democrat candidates. Some union members object to having no say in how their union dues are spent. Proponents of the measure objected to unions using money from their members for causes the members do not personally support. Opponents countered that if members don't like how their money was being spent, they should elect different union leaders.

Union leaders were so concerned about maintaining their political clout and defeating this measure that they set up huge phone bank operations out-of-state, in union-heavy MidWestern states, to systematically bombard California voters with calls to discourage them from supporting the proposition. In addition, they purchased expensive ads that indicated support for the measure would eliminate union members' opportunity to support charitable causes — a false claim. Even though the proposition was defeated, many analysts believe the issue will be revisited soon.

Proposition 227 addressed an issue of growing concern, especially to states with a large number of immigrants: bilingual education. The measure proposed eliminating the current bilingual education program in favor of a more streamlined and controlled program. A new immigrant student would have only one year of bilingual classes and a tutor for a limited time afterwards if the parents formally requested it. Proponents said it would prevent students from leaning on bilingual education as a way to avoid mastering English. The proposal was approved by an overwhelming margin, much to the dismay of education bureaucrats who benefit from state bilingual grant bankrolls.

“[Proposition 227] was opposed by every major [political] leader,” observed Forsyth. “They were terrified of this measure because they were viewing it through the racial and ethnic lenses that have dominated politics since the '60s — but look at the results.”

Forsyth argued that the overwhelming support for the measure, even among Hispanics, indicates that bilingual education programs have failed. Moreover, he said, “It points to the deep yearning in the American people for a common national identity, no matter what their ethnic background. They want this common identity reflected in a common language.”

Forsyth also noted the general success of Catholic schools in bringing minimal-English-speaking Hispanics into the mainstream at a fraction of the cost of public school programs.

As to whether the proposition was structured to be hostile to immigrants, something that would oppose Catholic teachings, Forsyth said the strong immigrant support for the measure would indicate otherwise.

“When you look at the facts [and] who voted for it,” he concluded, “it's an authentic issue, and I think the Church would be inclined to accept that.”

Two prior California initiatives that are still being watched nationwide as they wind their way through various stages of legislative evaluation are Propositions 209 and 187. The first made it illegal to hire based on quotas or other prejudice, saying that applicants must be hired based on their relative merits to fulfill the job. The latter, which passed by a nearly 2-1 margin despite public opposition by the Catholic hierarchy and Hispanic leadership, denied state welfare aid to illegal immigrants.

Should we look to the Church to define the particularities of a political issue? “There's simply no ‘Catholic’ angle,” explained Forsyth. “Catholicism has a comprehensive view of the common good and there's no one lay group that embodies that. Morality should be defended by the law. New citizens should be welcomed. Children should be given high standard education with their parents as the primary determiners of that education. The Church offers a broader and more comprehensive view than that of one narrow ‘side.’ The factional mentality that dominates politics today sets different groups against each other, but [at a more fundamental level] their interests converge in the common good.”

Msgr. Lawrence Baird, director of communications for the Diocese of Orange, Calif., adds that it's a privilege to vote, which comes from a God-given freedom. He underscores the critical responsibility of each Catholic to inform his or her conscience according to the principles of Catholic teaching.

“When we vote,” he said, “we vote as human beings with a conscience, and we must act on an informed conscience. A Catholic must be informed on Catholic principles as they apply to particular issues; whether it's [an issue of] nuclear war or abortion. I can't leave my moral principles outside the voting booth. They are integral to me.”

The priest added that Catholics are called to externally express what they internally believe. “A Catholic must vote with a Catholic conscience, which requires that before I vote, I must be informed. To vote on an issue where I'm repudiating the official teaching of the Church on a matter, I'm not a faithful Catholic. One must approach voting issues from the angle of principle.”

In the near future, Catholics in California may have the opportunity to apply the principles of their faith to a ballot proposal defending heterosexual marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was introduced in late May in an effort to protect the state from being forced to accept “same-sex marriages,” even if they are legalized in other states such as Hawaii, Vermont, and Alaska. California Proponents of DOMA plan to submit it as a ballot initiative in an upcoming election.

Karen Walker writes from Corona Del Mar, California.

Bishop Issues Warning To Pro-Abortion Politician

Bishop Norman McFarland of Orange, Calif., has addressed a concern in the campaign for the state's 46th district congressional seat, sending a letter to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D).

In spite of her support for partial-birth abortion, Sanchez has been introduced in at least four local Catholic churches since March.

Bishop McFarland's letter to Sanchez prohibits her from speaking to Catholics from the pulpit.

The bishop explained to Sanchez that it is “incumbent upon you to give witness to the consistent ethic of life that should animate all conduct, but most especially political conduct…. [Because I am] becoming increasingly alarmed by your visits, I want to share with you my inquietudes in this matter before more public gestures on my part become necessary.”

The letter was not widely publicized.

Diocesan director of communications, Msgr. Lawrence Baird, concurred with the bishop, adding that “If someone, without mitigating circumstances, is pro-abortion, I find it impossible how someone could in conscience vote for that person.”

He also cited Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae: “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rm 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Ac 5:29)” (73).

— Karen Walker