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California the Scene for More Electioneering in 2006

After six statewide elections in four years, California is beginning to seem like it's in a perpetual election cycle. And 2006 will give voters no break.

Through a June primary and a November general election, voters will choose a governor, decide races for seven other statewide offices and select 100 members of the 120-seat state Legislature. And that's not even counting the congressional elections.

If heads were spinning over the eight initiatives on last November's special election ballot, they'll be dizzy at the number of potential initiatives next year. More than 50 proposals already are in circulation, including ones to expand preschool education, boost cigarette taxes to pay for health care, require that parents be notified when minors seek abortions, promote the use of alternative fuels, and ban gay marriage and domestic partners' benefits.

State lawmakers can put their own proposals on the ballot and are likely to do so as they seek more money for libraries, schools, roads, housing, earthquake retrofits for hospitals, high-speed rail and flood control.

Whether voters will be in the mood to approve government reforms or higher taxes was thrown into question in November. They defeated all eight measures on the Nov. 8 special election ballot, including four promoted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"You have an angry group of voters. They are not happy campers," said Barbara O'Connor, who gauged voter sentiment through focus groups as director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University, Sacramento.

A post-election survey found that California voters support the initiative process but prefer that lawmakers and the governor seek solutions first, said pollster Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California.

"They're still looking for education, fiscal, political and government reform in California. They don't think government in California is working," Baldassare said.

If lawmakers fail to take the initiative on major issues this year, Baldassare said, voters are "going to be looking to make changes in elected officials next year."

Only three incumbent statewide officeholders are seeking re-election: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, school Superintendent Jack O'Connell and Secretary of State Bruce McPherson. That leaves five open offices, with Republicans' chances partly depending on how well Schwarzenegger appeals to independent and crossover voters in the Democrat-leaning state.

Two Democrats -- state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly -- will face off in the June primary for the right to campaign against Schwarzenegger. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only prominent Democrat who ran in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, is likely to make a run for insurance commissioner.

Among legislators facing term limits and officeholders seeking a higher profile, the jockeying for the 2006 elections is like a game of political chess.

State Sen. Joe Dunn, for example, first announced he would run for attorney general, only to be pushed aside when Oakland mayor and former Gov. Jerry Brown said he would seek the office. Dunn, D-Santa Ana, then said he would run for state treasurer but was forced to change plans within days when Attorney General Bill Lockyer jumped into the race.

Dunn settled on controller, the only race without a well-known candidate.

"There's no question that you have to balance one's wishes with reality in pursuing a career of long-term public service," Dunn said.

Four state senators are fighting for the Democratic nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

"This is the legacy of term limits -- everybody against everybody else," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California. "There's just no way of knowing how the election will shape up."

Voters have little hope of dramatically reshaping the state legislature, where both houses are controlled by Democrats. That means most races will be decided in the June primary.

Of the 100 legislative contests, 54 are for open seats where the incumbent is not running. Only eight of those are considered swing districts, four in the Senate and four in the Assembly. All but one of the eight seats lean Democratic.

Yet voters' rejection last month of Proposition 77, which would have stripped lawmakers of their power to draw their own political districts, indicates they may not be angered over the current political alignment, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll.

Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders are now seeking a compromise redistricting method to put before voters. They also are pledging bipartisan cooperation, which would be a marked change from 2005, when the special election created a bitter atmosphere in Sacramento.

"There's a very brief window to get things done, and there's a lot of work to do, the way voters see it," O'Connor said. "They need to work on substantial projects -- not itsy bitsy bills."