Message from California

From handgun control to the nuclear freeze, how the state votes will foretell America's future.

Mayor Tom Bradley in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, California in 1980. Credit: George Rose/Getty

The elections in California should, as usual, send powerful messages to the rest of the nation, announcing future waves about to crash over American politics, but none of the voters I encountered seemed especially burdened by this responsibility.

People would sooner talk about small changes in the weather or the autumn brush fires or the latest bizarre crime reported in the news. A two-year-old boy's throat is slit in a shopping center holdup, and he hovers near death, a somber anchorman reports. A berserk street preacher plows his car into a crowd at a bus stop. An engineer from Silicon Valley, reported drowned in June, mourned and memorialized by his family, turns up alive in Canada.

Californians invent their own distractions. The San Francisco Chronicle has fastened upon the menace of pit bulldogs and, every so often, reports that another of these fierce little creatures has attacked a human being. Down in the Santa Clara Valley, farmers are posting armed guards to protect against garlic poachers, who steal the precious herb from open fields and peddle "hot" garlic on city streets. The Gay Olympics of '82, which drew a thousand athletes of all persuasions, was San Francisco's droll answer to the Los Angeles Olympics of '84.

Politicians and political causes have difficulty competing with the daily spectacle of California life. So in the last two weeks of October, they are spending millions of dollars on melodramatic TV blurbs designed to crash through the general indifference. During that small window in their attention span, Californians will decide what to tell the nation about the future.

The messages this year will be significant, possibly even historic. In the bleak history of America's race relations, no state has ever elected a black governor. If Tom Bradley –— the stolid mayor of Los Angeles and the Democratic candidate for governor– — wins, it will be a watershed for the nation and encouragement to black aspirations everywhere. Perhaps because this would be so significant, and despite Bradley's lead in the polls, many political insiders cling to a visceral hunch that it won't happen– — that somehow, without any talk about black and white, Bradley's color will defeat him.

On another plane, Californians seem certain to overwhelmingly approve Proposition 12, the bilateral nuclear-freeze campaign, adding the endorsement of the most populous state to that national movement. On the other hand, even supporters are gloomy about the prospects for another "safety" referendum, Proposition 15, which would halt the proliferation of handguns. Campaigns for initiatives usually need money for TV time in order to win, and the handgun-control folks haven't been able to raise it. A loss would suggest a perverse view of arms control: the nukes controlled by Washington and Moscow are really scary, but closer to home, everyone wants to keep a pistol in the bedroom.

Finally, in the race for the U.S. Senate, Californians will choose between originality and bland caution, between one of the most inventive minds in American politics, Governor Jerry Brown, and a gray mouse of a mayor, Pete Wilson of San Diego, whose own supporters complain about his "wimpish" campaign. Put that way, the outcome seems self-evident: Brown will be sent to the Senate, where he can enliven the national debate and maybe even inject some fresh ideas into the Democratic party.

Only one problem: Jerry Brown. After eight years in Sacramento, he has worn out the magic, and Californians are profoundly tired of the man, many of them disgusted with him. Even admirers who extol his brilliance and progressive policies will conclude a conversation by conceding that, yes, he's a cold fish. Or an opportunist. Or worse. Even his campaign manager allows that Brown "has not been a sympathetic character for a long time."

In his own oblique manner, even Jerry Brown agrees. This fall, he is watching his tongue and running without the moonbeams. His gritty campaign concentrates on bread-and-butter issues and hardball accusations that seem to spook his opponent and entertain the populace. Which is why, even though Brown is behind, most insiders have a feeling that the magic may work once more.

Up north in Shasta County, where there are lots of trees and hardly any black people, Tom Bradley was touring the sawmill of the Paul Bunyan Lumber Company and watching with appropriate fascination as huge fir logs were turned into two-by-fours. The timber-industry executives were anxious to get to know this "colored gentleman," as one forester called him, on the chance that he might be their next governor.

"He's a city boy and, apparently, he's done a job in Los Angeles that's been acceptable," said Roy Richards, Paul Bunyan's chief forester. "But agriculture has to be foreign to him. We're a very small number of voters, but the environmentalists have singled us out to really control us. Governor Brown! They don't give a damn what it costs us. They don't want no dirt in the creek at all."

Over lunch, the mayor assured the leaders of the Forest Protective Association: "I've targeted regulation as one of the principal areas where we can improve the business climate in California." That sounded good, albeit a bit vague, to the timbermen.

Bradley cautiously ventured further into the subject: "I want all of you to quickly understand –— I'm not opposed to all regulation. I'm not opposed to protection in the workplace or protection of the environment. But what I'm talking about are all the regulations that were put on the books simply because somebody thought it was a good idea, without regard to the impact."

"That will be a change!" a mill manager exclaimed happily.

What else? Bradley promised to consult the timber executives on appointments. Despite his vagueness, the timber people were downright enthusiastic.

"Stick to your guns," said Bill Holmes, president of the association. "I think it will be a great day for the state of California when you throw those bums out."

Bradley's encounter with the timber country was a typical exchange. California is several states in one, and Bradley, the urban black, is touring alien regions like a foreign ambassador presenting his credentials. California's differences, indeed, are large enough to encompass all of America's strengths and weaknesses, all of our quarrels and fantasies. It is a farm state more fecund than Iowa, an oil state richer than Texas. The Okie descendants who struck it rich coexist uneasily with born-again freaks fleeing the comforts of money. Bradley's message to this complicated audience is implicitly stated but clear to everyone: I may be black, but I ain't Jerry Brown.

Bradley's Republican opponent, Attorney General George Deukmejian, an Armenian-American whose nickname, "Duke," makes him sound stronger than he is, keeps insisting the opposite. Bradley is too Jerry Brown. When Mayor Bradley was cultivating the agribusiness interests of the San Joaquin Valley, promising to treat them better than Brown did, Deukmejian denounced him as a closet ally of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union.

Deukmejian prefers to campaign against Brown: "If you'll forgive a few gray hairs around the temples, maybe it's time we had a little maturity in Sacramento."

Bradley scurries away from any association with his fellow Democrat, failing even to mention Brown's name when plugging the Democratic slate. Brown responds testily to questions about Bradley's differences and asks for specifics. What regulations will Bradley repeal? The air-pollution laws? Water-resources enforcement? Brown has a point. As governor, Bradley would be much more conservative in style and less combative toward business interests, but no one really expects he would undo the major reforms of the Brown years.

Indeed, Bradley's vulnerability as a candidate lies in his blandness. The L.A. press nicknamed him "Stealth" because he seems invisible on so many issues. He is about as unthreatening as any black politician could be, running in a state that is only eight percent black, but even those who yearn for his victory fear he may be overdoing it. Deukmejian comes on as the experienced voice of law and order, stronger and more authoritative. Plus, he is white. People may convince themselves that they are choosing maturity when the unspoken reason is race.

On the other hand, Californians of all persuasions love their reputation for being out front. They enjoy sending startling messages to the nation, and that spirit clearly will help Bradley. One joke describes a valley redneck who intends to vote for the black man.

"I can't believe I'm actually going to vote for a black," the redneck says.

"Why are you?" his friend asks.

"Well, I sure as hell can't vote for an Armenian."

At the annual labor picnic in Alameda County, Governor Brown was surrounded by a crowd of the curious, reporters and labor skates and autograph hounds, as he waited for his turn at the podium. Among other qualities, Jerry Brown has an unfortunate habit with his eyes —– they dart about independent of his words. Brown will be talking to one person while staring off elsewhere, scanning the crowd as if in search of a more interesting conversation. Then, abruptly, he will look back at the person quizzically, as if to ask: are you still here? It makes people uncomfortable. It keeps them at a distance, which is perhaps what he wants.

The distance between Jerry Brown and ordinary people was awesomely large as late as June–he was twenty-two points behind in the polls–but has shrunk steadily since then. Brown has been working at it, trying to be a little less like people remember him.

At the labor picnic, two young women pushed forward with paper and pen, asking for autographs. It reminded me of an anecdote told about the young governor early in his tenure. Brown was dining with friends in a restaurant one night when a couple interrupted, demanding an autograph. He ignored them. They persisted. Finally, coldly, Brown took their napkin and wrote his name in a large kindergarten scrawl: J-E-R-R-Y. A nasty thing for a politican to do. This time, Brown signed the autographs. One woman wasn't satisfied. "Make it to Deborah," she insisted. Brown paused and looked around. Then he took the pen again and said: "What was the name? Deborah?"

When he puts his mind to it, Brown is real good at old-fashioned politicking (having learned from a master, his father). But he concedes that, as governor, he often slighted the drab chores of winning friends and building popular support. "I'm impatient," he said. "I like to get things done. Things take more time. You have to lay block upon block in the building of a program or a coalition... . To the extent I've not given that time, I've incurred political problems."

Brown preferred spending time with books or intellectual figures to schmoozing with voters. The thinkers are the source of his originality and boldness. "This takes time," he said. "[If you're] talking to them, you can't be cutting ribbons and kissing babies and eating rubber chicken."

Pete Wilson strives mightily to remind voters how much they resented Brown's famous flip-flops– — most notably on Proposition 13 —– and the spacey rhetoric of his early years. Brown gouges back at Wilson on hard national issues, like social security and the Reagan recession, sounding very much like your true-blue New Dealer.

The popular anxieties over crime seem most damaging to Brown (and perhaps also to Bradley) because the governor has been tagged with appointing bleeding-heart judges who let criminals go free. Brown insists that his judges are putting twice as many in prison as Ronald Reagan's judges did before him, but the get-tough mood of the public is expressed everywhere, most directly in Proposition 8, approved by the voters in June, which severely restricts the rights of criminal defendants– — kind of a bill of rights for prosecutors and police. Strangely enough, it was a lucky break for Brown and Bradley when the state supreme court last month upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 8, even though legal scholars believe it is outrageously flawed. If the justices had tossed out the public's answer to crime, Wilson and Deukmejian could have flogged the issue throughout the campaign, blaming Jerry Brown.

Perhaps those old resentments and the personal quirkiness will finally catch up with Brown this time, but it would be a shame. In reality, he does seem to have moved beyond that stage. Whatever his failings as governor, even citizens who despise him are willing to concede that Brown would make a more stimulating senator than Wilson. His innovations as governor, moreover, place him as a leader of public policy in the nation, way beyond the conventional thinking of Washington. He's a cold fish, maybe, but he sees the future more clearly than most politicians. And he's nervy enough to act upon it.

A few weeks ago, for instance, Brown was announcing new toxic-waste regulations for the state – no more dumping. Listening to Brown's rhetoric on this subject –— "Are we going to be stewards and look out for the future?" —– one could dismiss it as more whole-earth blarney, but I would bet that five or ten years from now, other states will be enforcing the same solution to toxic wastes and that, eventually, the federal government will, too.

On a broader, more fundamental subject, Brown has been preaching the high-tech future and pulling together an interesting coalition of computer manufacturers, industrial leaders, labor leaders and academicians to support a lengthy program of retooling California for the competitive future. California already has Silicon Valley, of course, but it intends to develop three or four more Silicon Valleys. That process begins in the first grade, according to Brown's plan. It means raising the standards of California schools in math and science, starting university programs to train more engineers and subsidizing basic research.

What he is trying to do — –and he has made real progress –— is to rebuild the public consensus for education. That consensus was shattered, first by Governor Ronald Reagan, then by the tax-cutting crusade of Proposition 13, which Brown himself abetted. Now he is trying to restore it, not with the old do-good liberal arguments of equal opportunity, but with practical arguments for how to revive economic growth for the future. Economic growth depends fundamentally on education, on investments in human capital. The robust history of California supports this theory. In a sense, Brown has merely rediscovered what Californians knew long ago.

Anyway, Jerry Brown's fate will not be decided by such lofty matters. Nor will Tom Bradley's. People will decide instead whether to punish the governor for being, on occasion, a brat. Or whether to hold the ex-cop from L.A., who happens to be black, responsible for street crime. Or whether Californians need the mellow reassurance of two gray Republicans. When the contrary states of California come together briefly to send their messages, they have a chance to move American.