Being Perfect Isn't Enough In Calif. Suburbs
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday September 20, 2000
This is the second in a series on suburban battlegrounds, where the struggle for control of the White House and Congress will be decided.
SAN JOSE, Calif.-Jim Cunneen is a Soccer Mom's dream, a suburban political fantasy whose centrist credentials could make Bill Clinton swoon.
Why, just check out the congressional candidate's New Democratic sales pitch in the computer capital of America:
Cunneen gets decent marks from Big Labor, but, like Clinton and opponent Mike Honda, the Silicon Valley state assemblyman breaks big time with the unions in supporting permanent normal trade relations with China. He scores as well with slow-growth environmental groups as he does with the hi-tech business crowd.
Like Clinton and Al Gore, who is now 20 points up in this newer "Generation-X" suburban area, Cunneen rejects the big across-the-board tax cuts favored by George W. Bush. Cunneen staunchly supports abortion rights, even reject-ing a ban on the so-called "partial birth" procedure.
Cunneen sought trigger locks and gun registration and a ban on assault weapons. He opposed the Proposition 187 crackdown on undocumented immigrants, which has killed the GOP in this state, and supported greater penalties for "hate" crimes. He has backed charter schools, but has broken with New Democratic soul mates, such as Joe Lieberman, calling vouchers a "cruel hoax" that hurts public schools.
The conundrum for Cunneen and his party, however, is that he isn't a Democrat at all. He is the Republican Party's Great Moderate Hope to survive the Democratic push for the six House seats needed for a majority and greater control of the national agenda.
In this increasingly populous and prosperous slice of Northern California, once GOP-friendly suburbs have be-come as inhospitable to the party as a shift of the San Andreas fault. And, all sides agree, Cunneen is behind-a victim of his party's lingering extremist image.
"It's only a tight race because they're two good people, politically and personally," said Anne Dunham, executive director of the Youth Science Institute, which received state grants through both Cunneen and Honda, another assem-blyman. "For the people, it's sort of a no-lose situation."
For either party, however, it's a must-win. The Democrats have a first- tier challenger, with deep ties in the com-munity and to both the old Democratic guard and the party's new independent- minded entrepreneurial recruits. Honda, who spent his early years with his parents in a Japanese-American internment camp in the state he now serves, knows that the Democratic enrollment edge means the race is his to lose.
It's not just Republicans who have suburban image problems. While Honda is happy to be joined at the hip with the popular Clinton, who campaigns for him later this week, he has to defend his ties to the likes of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and other liberals. Their opposition to tort reform, free trade and more visas for highly skilled workers makes the idea of a Democratic majority as unsettling as the antitrust attack against Microsoft.
"Many hi-tech execs say they have no problem with Honda," Kent Jenkins, an official at Cisco Systems, said of a man who, like Cunneen, is a founder of the state Internet Caucus and a hi-tech legislator of the year. "They're more con-cerned about Democrats having total control or this area having no voice in the Republican Party."
If Cunneen can't win here, it's hard to imagine a Republican who could. If he doesn't hold this seat, vacated by progressive GOP Rep. Tom Campbell to run for U.S. Senate, his party will have not a single congressional district from San Francisco to San Jose.
Imagine: Silicon Valley-home to an entrepreneurial revolution whose soldiers (certainly the officers) would have been Republican had it happened a generation ago-would be solidly Democratic.
Cunneen offers a stark example of how the conservative image of the national Republican leadership has made it harder for the GOP's moderate candidates to win in suburban districts and, ironically, spoiled the party's chances for an enduring majority. This is the cost of years of thinly veiled immigrant-bashing and race-baiting when the suburban swing voter is increasingly Hispanic and Asian. Crippling people like Cunneen, who should be the next wave of party leadership, is the price of letting social conservatives hijack a party that, as he says, once prided itself on a credo of "out of my bedroom, out of my boardroom."
Cunneen's troubles are a consequence of a party dominated by nonsuburban leaders whose obsession with cutting government and taxes ignored the reality that suburban baby boomers wanted more services and were willing to pay for them-as long as they got value for their money. This is payback for ignoring suburban sensibilities and priorities, espe-cially of women concerned about caring for parents and children, and for pursuing a popular president on what these voters believed to be ultimately a private matter.
This is as big a tragedy for the GOP, not to mention guys like Cunneen, as it is an opportunity for Democrats here and in Washington. And since 1992, when Clinton took this state and country with an appeal that unified liberals and moderates and urbanites and suburbanites, the party seized it. It is doing so again in this district and others in the na-tion's biggest state.
If Democrats hadn't found a Honda, this might not have been a tough seat for Republicans to hold. But GOP prob-lems made it easier for Democrats to attract such first-tier candidates. And while it's clear Honda would rarely break with his party's line, he has used his experience to avoid being pigeonholed as "an old economy, anti-business liberal."
Honda's image as a kindly educator who cares about people-he held a dozen kids spellbound the other day with his best Mr. Rogers routine at the Youth Science Center-has helped him in a year when suburban voters are concerned about education and health care. It certainly makes things harder for a challenger who may be as caring and thoughtful but faces an uphill struggle because of the way his district has changedpolitically-and his party ideologically.
These changes were already happening in 1996, when I visited Silicon Valley and other national suburban battle-grounds. Bob Dole's pre- suburban look and feel was a disaster. But 2000 has brought Cunneen and other suburban Re-publicans more challengesthat are beyond their control. Although resentment over impeachment and Prop 187 remains, the collapse of Bush in California could be most costly.
For a few months before and immediately after presenting his " compassionate conservatism" to the country in Philadelphia, Bush was doing well in California and many suburban areas. His efforts to make the party seem more tol-erant and immigrant-friendly helped the Cunneens of the world to get a fresh, fair hearing as Republicans. And with Bush signaling he'd make a big push for the state's 54 electoral votes, GOP turnout looked like it could be high-what Cunneen needed. Now, despite public denials, no Republican I talked to believes Bush will spend more time here than is necessary to raise money.
Unlike Rep. Jim Rogan, an arch-conservative trying to hang on to his suburban Los Angeles district by talking a more "compassionate" talk, Cunneen has been walking the "kinder, gentler" walk since he worked for progressive Re-publicans right out of college. "He's perfectly cast for this district," said Kevin Brett, an executive at LSI Logic.
But he's a Republican. And it's too bad for Cunneen and perhaps more so for his party that it isn't good enough to be the perfect candidate in a suburb the party once owned.