Abortion debate shows how California politics has changed

People often ask me how things have changed in the California Capitol over the past 60 years. One answer: Politics today is too much knee-jerk partisanship.

A vivid example is abortion.

This is true on many issues. More legislators thought for themselves and were not so subject to party dogma.

Now, abortion is at the fore and center again after news broke last month that the US Supreme Court was on the verge of overturning a decision in Rowe v. Wade, 1973, which legalized termination of pregnancy nationwide.

In Sacramento, there has been political gameplay by the Democrats and rote partisan voting by both sides.

It’s a stark contrast to 55 years ago this month when the Democratic-controlled legislature narrowly passed and new Republican Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s most liberal abortion law.

Party politics was not a factor. A legislator was a Democrat or a Republican on abortion doesn’t matter. The parliamentarians were divided by religion. Protestants generally supported the bill and Catholics opposed it.

The rookie governor, a Protestant, was torn apart by conflicting advice and moral conflicts. George Stephens, who lobbied the legislature for Reagan, remembers when he committed to signing the bill.

The author, Democratic State Sen. Tony Beilenson of Beverly Hills, was invited to Reagan’s office to make his pitch for the measure.

“Finally,” Steffs told me, “Reagan said, ‘Tony, I don’t agree with you. But most legislators voted for it. Republican leaders voted for it and asked me to sign it’ .And I’m going to sign it.’

“It’s a great example of how Reagan was willing to listen to everyone,” says Stephs who attended the meeting. “He didn’t turn his mind because the bill was coming from members of the other side.”

In this case, the support was bipartisan – and so was the opposition.

The assembly floor jockey was Republican Craig Biddle of Riverside. Assembly Republican leader Robert Monagan supported it. A key Senate committee vote was cast by the Republican president. Future Republican Governor George Duchamajian voted “Aye” on the Senate floor, where the measure passed without a vote.

Catholic Democrats, including San Jose’s very liberal Assemblyman John Vasconcelos, strongly opposed the bill.

Proceed to Monday, when the Senate voted to put a measure on the November ballot to amend the California Constitution with a specific guarantee for abortion rights in this state.

It needed a two-thirds majority vote, 27. It passed from 29 to 8. All “yes” votes came from Democrats and all “no” votes were from Republicans. The measure was sent to the Assembly, where passage was virtually ensured.

One reason the GOP is irrelevant in Sacramento is its strong opposition to social issues like abortion.

Compare the current Republican gubernatorial aspirant with Reagan and two later GOP governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both supported the right to abortion. And that’s one reason Wilson was elected in 1990.

Senate Leader Tony Atkins, D-San Diego, author of the Constitution Amendment, acknowledged politicization during an interview, though he insisted it was not his motive.

Although her measure will have no effect on current abortion rights in California—they are concrete—she fears future federal courts, if not the governor and legislature, could undermine the state’s protective statute. He believes that a state constitutional amendment would prevent federal tampering.

A recent UC San Diego poll showed that a ballot measure on abortion could increase turnout by independent voters by about seven percent, and by about the same amount by women of child-bearing age.

Voter acceptance of the ballot will be a loud voice for abortion rights.

It’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the past half century: The sound of California is being shouted across America. Unfortunately, now its political circle has become more.

George Skelton is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

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