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Skelton California’s long history as voice for abortion rights

I’m often asked how things have changed on the California Capitol over the past 60 years. One answer: Politics today is much more knee-jerk partisan.

A striking example is abortion.

That applies to many subjects. In the past, more legislators thought for themselves and were not so submissive to party dogma.

Now abortion is back in the spotlight after it was revealed last month that the US Supreme Court was close to overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

In Sacramento there were political games by the Democrats and partisan votes by both parties.

That is in stark contrast to 55 years ago this month, when the Democratic-controlled Legislature narrowly passed and incoming Republican Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the nation’s most liberal abortion law.

Party politics didn’t matter. Whether a legislator was a Democrat or a Republican didn’t matter in abortion. Lawmakers were divided by religion. Protestants generally supported the law and Catholics opposed it.

The rookie governor, a Protestant, was torn by conflicting advice and moral strife. George Steffes, who campaigned for Reagan in the Legislature, remembers pledged to sign the law.

The author, Beverly Hills Democratic State Senator Tony Beilenson, was invited to Reagan’s office to lobby for the measure.

“In the end,” Steffes told me, “Reagan said, ‘Tony, I disagree with you. But most lawmakers voted in favour. Republican leaders voted for it and asked me to sign it. And I will sign it.’

“This is one of the great examples of how willing Reagan was to listen to everyone,” said Steffes, who attended the meeting. “He didn’t shut his mind because the bill came from members of the other party.”

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

The floor jockey of the assembly was Riverside Republican Craig Biddle. Assembly Republican leader Robert Monagan supported this. A key Senate committee vote was cast by the Republican chairman. Future Republican governor George Deukmejian voted “yes” in the Senate, where the measure passed without a loss of votes.

Catholic Democrats, including the very liberal San Jose Rep. John Vasconcellos, strongly opposed the bill.

One Catholic Democrat who voted “yes” was the future speaker of the assembly, Bob Moretti of Van Nuys, a graduate of Notre Dame University. During the plenary debate, I saw Moretti sitting at his desk with his head in his hands and weeping before casting his vote.

Continue Monday when the Senate voted to include a measure in the November vote to amend California’s constitution with a specific guarantee for abortion rights in that state.

It required a two-thirds majority, 27. It passed by a vote of 29 to 8. All “yes” votes came from Democrats and all “no” votes from Republicans. The measure was sent to the assembly, where passage was practically assured.

The unified GOP opposition in the Senate was somewhat irritating because abortion rights are overwhelmingly in favor of California voters.

An April poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 76% of likely voters opposed Roe’s ouster — 87% Democrats, 77% Independents and 54% Republicans. Each geographic region preferred to retain Roe’s protection.

Only nine of the 40 Senate seats are held by Republicans. One reason the GOP has declined in importance in Sacramento is its stubborn opposition to social issues like abortion. The party is a big target for Democrats in left-leaning California.

Even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s losing Republican opponent for reelection, Senator Brian Dahle of rural Bieber, Lassen County, voted against the measure. But he wisely remained silent during the debate.

Compare the current Republican gubernatorial candidate to Reagan and two later GOP governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both advocated abortion rights. And that’s one of the reasons Wilson got elected in 1990.

But let’s face it, California’s Democrats are patently politicizing the issue. They try to distract voters from the GOP’s most important issues: inflation, homelessness and crime. And they’re counting on threats to abortion rights to lure voters to the polls and boost Democratic turnout.

Senate Chairperson Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), the author of the constitutional amendment, acknowledged the politicization during an interview, although she insisted it was not her motive.

“I know people are pushing it for political reasons and thinking it might lead to a vote, but for me I’m not getting out of it,” Atkins told me.

She is believable on that insistence. Atkins ran women’s clinics performing abortions in San Diego and Los Angeles for six years and has heard many heartbreaking stories from pregnant women.

Although her action would have absolutely no impact on California’s current abortion rights — they are solid — she worries that future federal courts, if not for a governor and legislature, could weaken the state’s protective law. A state constitutional amendment would prevent manipulation by the federal government, she believes.

But nobody really believes that a future California governor or legislature would dare to abolish abortion rights.

A recent UC San Diego poll showed that the abortion ballot measure could increase turnout by independent voters by nearly seven percentage points and about the same amount by women of childbearing age.

That’s what most democratic activists are about.

Regardless, voter approval of the ballot measure would be a loud voice for abortion rights.

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the last half century: California’s voice is being called out across America. Unfortunately, it now has more of a political ring to it.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-23/skelton-california-abortion-constitutional-amendment-politics-legislature Skelton California’s long history as voice for abortion rights

Alley Einstein

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