May 16-23, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Let's Make a New Deal

January and February featured lots of Nūz on the 2008 Assembly race for the seat now occupied by former Santa Cruz mayor and Cabrillo College trustee John Laird.

First we covered how moves are afoot on the state level to trade longer legislator term limits for redistricting reform. And how, as a result, Democrats might or might not run because and if those moves succeed, Assemblymember Laird has already announced his intention to run again and is virtually guaranteed the seat.

Next came interviews with three candidates--Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly, SLV School Board trustee Barbara Sprenger and Santa Cruz City Councilmember Ryan Coonerty--along with mentions of potential racers Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone and Morgan Hill City Councilmember Greg Sellers.

So what's happened since?

Well, readers with sharp memories will recall that Supervisor Stone decided to instead seek another term on the county Board of Supervisors, where he, and he alone, recently voted against the Supes' immense self-granted jump in pay.

And Ryan Coonerty has, since that time, also decided not to run, citing time with family and the desire for a normative life.

Greg Sellers, too, has put his campaign on hold awaiting word on the term limits deal, and meanwhile, doesn't wish to be considered a candidate.

In the meantime, however, new entrants have emerged. Stephen Barkalow, chiropractor and founder of the first multidisciplinary medical group on the Monterey peninsula, plans to run emphasizing health care reform.

Gary Smith, owner of the Monterey Live nightclub and a Save Our Shores board member, has launched a run stressing the width of his local roots.

Most prominent, though, is Bill Monning, professor at the Monterey College of Law, attorney, and specialist in international mediation. You may remember Monning from two high-profile races back in the '90s, in which he lost by only a few smidgens to Congressman Sam Farr and then by an iota or two to Assemblyman Bruce McPherson. Monning, who has a long history of involvement with the peace community, the environmental community and the African American community in Monterey, is still familiar to voters, as he's always around being active somewhere.

But is there even going to be a race for Laird's seat? Simple answer: No one yet knows. Reason: the term limits-for-redistricting deal isn't gelling.

State legislators of both parties are still putting forth competing suggestions; the governor has stated that he'll only back a loosening of term limits if it brings about redistricting; most federal electeds (California's Senate and House members) don't like the idea of messing around with the boundaries of districts in which they've just won tough races; the autumn deadline for placing anything on the February 2008 presidential primary ballot has appeared on the horizon; and the public is fundamentally uninterested in the redistricting question and badly divided on the issue of term limits.

How divided? So much so that pollsters can't even determine solid public attitudes, because they change with every new framing.

Pollsters who call voters asking about one part of the most likely scheme--reducing local pols' allotted time in office from 14 years to 12--get cheers. Those who ask voters how they'd like their reps to get an uninterrupted 12 years in one house of the Legislature, rather than having to jump around, get groans. The problem being that both facets are part of the deal, so the contrast is a killer.

This pattern is so strong that it resonates through four statewide polls. A statewide Field Poll stressing the 14-to-12-year reduction of total time in office: 53 percent support. Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State: 51 percent support. Public Policy Institute of California, emphasizing the 12-years-in-one-house increase: 66 percent opposed. David Binder Research : 59 percent simply want current limits kept as is.

In other words, it doesn't look good regardless of the framing. When only 1 percent to 3 percent more than a majority of voters support a ballot measure before a campaign starts, it usually loses once the shouting begins.

But the framing makes enough difference-on the whole, almost a 20 percent difference in voter attitudes--to keep term limit loosening supporters working hard through the night at their frame shops. And the uppermost frame-crafter yet is state Attorney General Jerry Brown, who wrote this official ballot summary, a few weeks ago, for one well-funded term limits measure: "Reduces the total amount of time a person may serve in the state legislature from 14 years to 12 years. Allows a person to serve a total of 12 years either in the Assembly, the Senate, or a combination of both. Provides a transition period to allow current members to serve a total of 12 consecutive years in the house in which they are currently serving, regardless of any prior service in another house."

Needless to say, this emphasis on "reduces" led proponents of upholding strict term limits to declare themselves very, very unhappy. And what do we 21st-century Americans do when we're very, very unhappy?

Welcome to Sacramento Superior Court.

At one table will be Jerry Brown, and at the other, U. S. Term Limits attorney Eric Grant, perhaps with state USTL affairs director Jeremy Johnson, who's described the summary as "the most cynical, arrogant and dishonest attempt yet to thwart the will of the voters."

And most probably Martha Montelongo, California USTL coordinator, who's taken to citing the increase in ethnic and gender diversity in the state houses since term limits were enacted and accuses incumbents of "selfishly wanting to pull up the draw bridge and preventing others from sharing in the opportunities that term limits have created for all Californians to participate in the political process." Meanwhile, the group's website currently features the headline, "Proof Anti-Term Limits Ballot Title is Inaccurate! Deceptive Wording Exposed." In short, this group intends serious battle.

Meanwhile, after a long winter's nap, redistricting--the last figure in this complex political shuffle -- is beginning to stir. And that's important to any deal, since the polls above show that voters will likely refuse any loosening of term limits in absence of some compensating, political power-lessening factor. And there's no factor to limit power like competitive, party-balanced election districts.

At least four proposals--from Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Gov. Schwarzenegger, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal and Republican Senate leader Roy Ashburn--have appeared.

Lowenthal's attracted Schwarzenegger's support last year and looked like the ticket, but time ran out for adoption, so he's introducing a similar one. Ashburn's constitutional amendment approach handles four controversial but related topics -- campaign finance reform, accountability reform, term limit changes and redistricting much like Lowenthal's, omitting, though, congressional boundaries. The proposal may, however, be overly ambitious; astute commentators have noted that it may break the state's ban on amendments covering more than one subject. The others are more standard.

So this is what's going on in Sacramento while our local candidates--and our incumbent John Laird--await the outcome.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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