California shifts to the Democrats Party gains control before critical reapportionment; ELECTION 1998 : NATION


LOS ANGELES -- California's political landscape underwent a seismic shift on Tuesday.

The Democrats, in the person of Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, grabbed the governor's office for the first time in 16 years -- while holding the two U.S. Senate seats, majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature and a slight edge in the 52-member congressional delegation.

Davis' victory, combined with the re-election of Sen. Barbara Boxer, gives the Democrats control of the nation's most populous state at a critical time, with a presidential election and congressional reapportionment on the horizon.

With California likely to gain as many as five House seats after the 2000 census, Democrats will be in position to draw the new district lines in such a way to create as many new Democratic seats as possible.

Across the state, party leaders interpreted the outcome as a vote against the kind of divisive politics that have put California in the spotlight in recent years.

"This was a rejection of the politics of scapegoating and fear that we've seen the other party engage in," said California Assembly Speaker Antonia Villaraigosa, referring to Republican-sponsored initiatives to end affirmative action and state services for illegal immigrants. "If there was a message here, it was that with our demographics, you can't castigate or scapegoat entire communities and expect to remain the majority party."

In addition to winning the governorship, Democrats captured most key statewide offices, from lieutenant governor to attorney general to state treasurer.

Still, the advantages of one-party control in the state may be tempered by the personality of the new governor, a methodical politician who seeks consensus. In his characteristically plain RTC way, Davis hailed his election not as any sort of revolution but as a clear indication that voters "want to take a moderate path for California."

"That is who I am, that is how I ran and that is how I will govern," the former state comptroller and chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown said after crushing Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren by a 20-point margin.

Analysts said Davis, 55, appealed to reasonably content Californians with his middle-of-the-road positions and low-key style.

"They went for the safe candidate who would provide competent government -- and in this case that was a Democrat," said Terry Christensen, chairman of the political science department at San Jose State University. "Dan Lungren seemed a little bit scary, like he might really shake things up. And I think people are feeling pretty good in California. They don't want that now."

Boxer also won by trying to cast herself as a moderate and her Republican opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong, as an extremist out of step with California's social views. She won 53 percent of the vote, despite being written off by many analysts early on because of her strident manner, her unwillingness to sharply criticize the president after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and her traditional liberal agenda.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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