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Morality Counts in California, But Far From Everywhere:

Aside from the war in Iraq, the single dominant theme of this month’s mid-term Congressional election was morality – or the lack of it. The power of this issue helped drive more than two dozen incumbents from seemingly secure seats in the House of Representatives.

And yet, three of the four California congressmen suspected of possible ethical lapses during the last few years won easy reelection. One didn’t even have an opponent, and another faced a candidate unable to raise any money at all as of mid-October. Plus, Bonnie Garcia, a Republican assemblywoman from the Coachella Valley whom the state’s married governor described as “hot,” was narrowly reelected after telling a high school class she’d welcome the guv to her bed, whether he’s hitched or not.

So morality plainly didn’t have the power in California that it did in many other places. Or perhaps it merely means something different in some parts of this state.

The reelected Congressional threesome, all Republicans, were:

Gary Miller of Diamond Bar, east of Los Angeles, who allegedly saved thousands by deferring more than $3 million in tax payments devolving from his 2002 sale of 165 acres of hillside land to the city of Monrovia. Miller has claimed Monrovia threatened him with eminent domain if he refused to sell the land, but a videotape of a city council meeting is reported to show him pleading with officials to buy the property. Miller had no opposition either this month or in the June primary election.

Jerry Lewis of Redlands, who is under federal scrutiny over ties to lobbyists whose clients got hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks from the House Appropriations Committee, which he has chaired. Lewis, the top House recipient of lobbyist donations, denies any improprieties. His Democratic opponent made only a token effort against him, at best, raising no money.

At mid-campaign, Lewis also fired almost all his committee’s investigators. They were reportedly investigating him. It remains to be seen whether those investigators will now be recalled by a new Democratic committee chairman. Also, at last report, Lewis had used well over $100,000 in campaign donation money to pay his defense lawyers in the lobbying investigation. None of this information was kept from voters, but they reelected Lewis by a margin of more than 2-1.

John Doolittle of Rocklin, who acknowledges that his lawyer has talked with the federal Justice Department about his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of fraud. Doolittle also admitted to paying a fundraising firm owned by his wife more than $67,000 from campaign funds.

The only election loser among this year’s California rogue’s gallery was Richard Pombo of Tracy, who claimed he never worked with Abramoff, but was shown by billing records to have had at least two interactions with the lobbyist and to have accepted at least $8,000 in campaign donations from him. Some reports indicate the FBI is probing Pombo’s efforts on behalf of an Indian tribe that was a client of Abramoff. Pombo lost by about six percent to wind power engineer Jerry McNerney, proving there was at least one place in California where allegations of corruption counted.

The fact that only one of these longtime incumbents, two of whom stood high in the GOP’s House leadership, was ousted says a lot both about this state’s reapportionment process and about the priorities of Republican voters.

All enjoyed “safe” districts where Republican voters far outnumber Democrats. But the foibles of all were well publicized throughout the election season.

Does this mean most Republican voters no longer care about morality? No, says Robert Stern, president of the California-based Center for Government Studies.

“The ones who survived did so because the Republican Party has a stranglehold on those districts,” Stern said. “And while they talk about morality and family values all the time, the Republicans don’t often talk values in terms of economics. They’re talking about abortion and gay marriage and religion and loose sexuality. They know business ethics are questionable all over today, and many may even applaud what Doolittle and his wife have done. They’ll often excuse these people’s problems as long as they vote the right way on what they consider the real values issues.”

If Stern is correct, and election returns tend to back it up, alleged tax delay or evasion and using public office for personal gain don’t bother many California voters.

Which means that when newspapers carried headlines like “Voters Fed Up with Ethical Lapses,” a phrase repeated in many outlets this fall, they were apparently talking about voters someplace other than most parts of California.

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