Republicans assist in suicide

Those farthest right will give political ammunition without being asked

With polls showing the Democratic presidential candidates losing ground to President George Bush, on July 28, centrist Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana blamed it on 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 the voter flight that today has Republicans maintaining only 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.

Davis intends to make political hay out of the farthest-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 of people 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 for his signature, the first law in the nation to ban several flame-retardant chemicals known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers).

PBDEs have transferred into humans, whales, seals and large fish in alarming quantities and have shown 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, carpeting and building materials into living things. But early studies show the chemicals are doubling in humans in the United States and Canada every five years.

Some scientists say PBDEs are the most “bio-accumulating” compounds to appear in 50 years, since the horrors of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). It is not yet known what effect PBDEs have on humans. Scientists can only say that PBDEs interfere with the thyroid gland and hormones that regulate brain growth.

Limited studies conducted on San Francisco-area women by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency showed that the women had, on average, 10 to 70 times the PBDEs found in Europeans. In Europe, manufacturers voluntarily stopped using the chemicals, which are now banned by the European Union. In the United States, IBM and Ikea voluntarily have stopped using bio-accumulating PBDEs in their products.

Industry groups hotly opposed the original bill banning PBDEs in California. The bill, Assembly Bill 302, authored by Democrat Wilma Chan of Alameda, was poorly conceived and aimed to ban versions of PBDEs that are not showing up in mammals in high concentrations. That bill needlessly would have taken lifesaving flame-retardants off the market.

But Chan’s final bill was different. Industry officials begrudgingly said they could live with it. The bill left manufacturers with several PBDEs to use as flame retardants, just as in Europe, and allowed five years to get rid of the two most bio-accumulating forms, penta and octa PBDEs.

Making a rare public statement on a pending bill, the California Environmental Protection Agency supported the compromise. Winston Hickox, secretary of the state agency, wrote that the bill “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.”

Despite this, 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 Sacramento’s elected Republicans heard the counterintuitive news that in Sacramento, the vast majority of big-business campaign bucks flow to the majority Democrats and that 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, said 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,” said 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 mid-1970s, when Southern Californians were choking on smog. I am not exaggerating when I say that your eyes would smart and that tears would flow, merely from riding along on the smoky blue freeways. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) was formed despite fierce opposition by scions of industry, elected officials and various Chamber of Commerce types who said that cutting the smog that had blanketed the area for 40 years would kill jobs and cast an economic pall.

They were half-right, yet utterly wrong. Yes, some extremely polluting businesses were driven out. But smog control spawned a vibrant new industry of smog-control devices and products; smog-control technicians, engineers and companies; and fantastic inventions that gave us heat or cold, better insulation or better appliances but that used far 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 livable again.

Elected Republicans could have learned a lesson from the AQMD miracle and from the booming business, renewed livability and clean, crisp air (now threatened by growth and by smog created by emissions from wildly inefficient SUVs).

But elected Republicans failed to learn. It’s odd, considering 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 International 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 a popular issue, behind fighting crime, keeping a strong defense and improving education.

Assemblyman Keith Richman is one of those, a San Fernando Valley doctor who is among the most liberal Republicans. Yet Richman opposed the ban on PBDEs because he is concerned that alternative flame-retardants might prove less effective and perhaps even result in more burn injuries or burn deaths.

“There are always unintended consequences to legislation,” he said. “We added [methyl tertiary-butyl ether to gasoline] to make it safer, and it turned out to make things worse when it was supposed to clean things up,” he said. “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 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 the votes of Latinos, for example, Davis publicly has promised to sign a controversial bill allowing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens that, unlike a similar bill vetoed by Davis last fall, does not even require the illegal aliens to apply for U.S. citizenship. In a move designed to attract a fat infusion of campaign funds, Davis is expected to sign a bill giving Indian tribes a say about 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 and 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, and now it’s one big reason why Davis faces a better chance of survival than the pundits so breathlessly claim.