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Democrats Fight Back

North Bay politicos weigh in on divisive election and what comes next

By R. V. Scheide

Depressed. Demoralized. Defeated. In the wake of the Nov. 2 election, Democrats are feeling anything but Democratic and those Republicans who are in full gloat are piling it on. Newly reelected Republican president George W. Bush, having narrowly avoided the one-term fate that befell his father, now claims a mandate to dismantle social security and Medicare, strip away what little fairness remains in the federal tax code and disrupt the rest of the Middle East. Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who helped push Bush over the top with a last-minute appearance in the key battleground state of Ohio and effectively denied millions of Californians healthcare by publicly opposing Proposition 72, now openly taunts Democrats as "losers." It's no wonder that the Democratic rank-and-file is feeling more than a little bit delusional.

Nevertheless, there's a glimmer of hope amid the storm clouds of division, the faintest of silver linings, according to elected members of the North Bay's heavily Democratic political contingent. The Republican victory parade is about to be rained upon in a big way by a crazy little thing called reality, a subject the Grand Old Party has not been overtly fond of as of late: the reality of the unpopular war in Iraq, the reality of the $7.5 trillion-and-growing national debt, the reality of nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance.

"The president was reelected, and elections have consequences," says Rep. Mike Thompson (First District). "Clearly, we're going to have policies that reflect his beliefs and the beliefs of those who are in control of the House and the Senate." But Thompson sees any alleged overarching Bush mandate as dubious. "He has a mandate from the red states, no doubt about that. But the blue states? No way. He needs to moderate his positions. Anything short of that is overreaching, and there will be consequences."

"We're not red or blue, we're purple," agrees Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Sixth District), a frequent and vocal critic of Bush administration policies. "It's not like, 'Whoops, we lost, now everything George W. Bush wants he gets.'"

Although media reports have trumpeted the GOP's gain of five seats in the House, both Thompson and Woolsey find plenty to be optimistic about in the election results. In Illinois, Democratic challenger Melissa Bean defeated Philip Crane, the longest-serving Republican in the House with a 35-year tenure, in the race for that state's eighth congressional district. In New York, former Buffalo City Council member Brian Higgins won the 27th congressional district seat vacated by retiring moderate, Republican Jack Quinn.

"In regard to the House, there's a lot to be cheery about," says Thompson. "We came out of this with more seats than people thought possible. I'm astonished that we did as well as we did."

Of course, the House has no control over one of the biggest issues weighing on Democrats in the election's wake, the fact that Bush will be selecting as many as three Supreme Court justices in the next four years. "That's between the Senate and the executive branch--we don't have any say," explains Woolsey. "You've just put your finger on the most important issue in this reelection."

How Senate Democrats handle Bush's Supreme Court nominations remains to be seen, but early signs are not encouraging. With Iowa's Sen. Tom Daschle's defeat, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion rights, is slotted to be next minority leader. During the first four years of the Bush administration, liberals became increasingly critical of what they perceived as acquiescence by the Daschle-led senate Democrats, many of whom signed on to Bush's tax cut proposals and his doctrine of preemptive attack with hardly a struggle. Reid's leadership promises more of the same, unless unabashed liberal firebrands such as newly reelected Sen. Barbara Boxer make a stand.

Neither senators Boxer nor Diane Feinstein returned calls before press time. Overall, Democrats lost four seats in the closely divided senate, a loss that was slightly eclipsed by rising star Barack Obama's victory in the race for the Illinois senate seat.

At the state level, Gov. Schwarzenegger's labeling of Democrats as "losers" comes as a big surprise to North Bay Democratic Assembly members Patty Berg (First District) and Joe Nation (Sixth District), who along with newcomer Noreen Evans (Seventh District) handily won their seats by margins that truly can be called mandates. In fact, despite the fact that the governor publicly endorsed more than a dozen Republican assembly candidates around the state, none of the targeted Democrats were defeated.

"All I can say is that we still hold the majority in the Assembly and the Senate," says Berg, adding that Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez (46th District) deserved much of the credit. "We have a remarkable person in the Speaker. He has a solid relationship with the governor and is a remarkable strategist. No one lost their race who was targeted and I think it's because of the Speaker."

There are signs that the governor's name-calling act--earlier this year he castigated Democrats as "economic girlie-men"--is beginning to wear thin.

"The governor has a tendency to be a little too loose with his words, and that can have a tendency to come back and bite you," says Nation. Despite the fact that many of the initiatives Schwarzenegger campaigned against were defeated--including propositions 66, 68, 70 and 72--overall, the state's election results simply don't justify such hyperbole. "We didn't have any change, so there can't be a lot of change in the dynamics," says Nation. "He'll push his agenda, and we'll continue to push back."

Pushing back may become increasingly easier as Schwarzenegger's agenda, driven by former Republican governor Pete Wilson and the state chamber of commerce, becomes more familiar to the public. Nation spent the last 10 days of the election campaigning for Kerry in Ohio and was present when Schwarzenegger appeared in Columbus on behalf of the president.

"Schwarzenegger has portrayed himself as a moderate and bipartisan," he says. "I think people are starting to blame him for Kerry's loss. People may begin to see the real Arnold Schwarzenegger."

House member Mike Thompson hopes that bipartisanship will rise above the level of the past two-year session, in which Republicans took to excluding Democrats from important conference committee meetings.

"They have to allow us to work with them," he says. "If they continue to assume that they will roll over the minority party, it isn't going to do anybody any good."

"We have to find a way to get our troops out of Iraq," says Lynn Woolsey.

"We don't have the bully pulpit, but we will have an audience. I for one am going to continue to fight for the issues my district--Marin and Sonoma counties--thinks are important. I have a mandate to do that."

What happens in California will be echoed across the country, Patty Berg insists. "We are the largest state in the nation, the fifth largest economy in the world," she says. "As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation."

Hopefully for better, not for worse.

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From the November 10-16, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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