Candidates in the 72nd Assembly District race feuded so politely before television cameras recently that voters might not recognize it as the county's hottest state legislative race.
One reason may be that at this early stage, the contest is influenced as much by Sacramento power brokers operating behind the scenes as by the candidates themselves.
Also, the real political fireworks are expected in November, when Republicans and Democrats square off in what could be one of the most expensive Assembly campaigns in county history.
In the race for a district that encompasses Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and parts of Westminster, Santa Ana Mayor Dan Griset is running unopposed in the June 3 Democratic primary.
He is expected to clash in the November general election with Republican Richard E. Longshore, a real estate broker who has run unsuccessfully for the seat three times before. Longshore is opposed in the Republican primary by insurance fund adjuster George V. Heaney.
The hotly contested seat became vacant when six-term Democratic Assemblyman Richard Robinson, who defeated Longshore in two previous elections, decided this year to run instead for Congress against incumbent Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).
The stakes are high for both parties. Republicans are eager for a chance to regain the last state legislative seat in Orange County to have been held by a Democrat. Meanwhile, Democrats hope to hold on to their last remaining legislative bastion in a county known for its conservatism and heavy Republican registration edge.
Political strategists believe that voters who tune in for November's final episode will see a cliffhanger similar to 1984's, when Longshore lost by a scant 256 votes to Robinson. The $1.1-million battle set a spending record for an Assembly race in Orange County.
Still, voters might be forgiven for wondering what all the excitement is about, given the relatively calm state of affairs at this stage of the race.
Scene One at KOCE-TV (Channel 50): During a TV taping, Griset claims that voters deserve a hometown boy whose family roots in the district date back to 1898. Heaney says his family goes back four generations in the same house where he lives now. Meanwhile, Longshore proclaims that his forefathers were among the original Pennsylvania colonists. They have had a "pretty long time to learn what the United States of America stands for," he adds.
Scene Two: Prompted by the television host, Griset alleges that the Democrat-controlled Legislature in Sacramento will consider Orange County a "throwaway county" when it comes to important budgetary matters if he loses the county's only legislative seat held by a Democrat. Longshore counters that Gov. George Deukmejian needs more GOP votes in Sacramento, where the Democrats control both the Assembly and the Senate.
Scene Three: Longshore calls Griset a "clone" of Robinson, whom he characterizes as a liberal, free-spending, pro-abortion Democratic assemblyman. Griset says he won't dignify Longshore's comment with a response. Meanwhile, Heaney says his youth (he's 31) gives him more energy to get things done.
Republicans have been building toward this year's campaign ever since Longshore's surprisingly close race against Robinson in 1982. They want the seat badly, in part because it represents the Democrats' last stronghold, and an invitingly weak one at that. Democratic registration in the district has dropped to 50.2% from 54% just two years ago.
However, like a Hollywood-produced television show that is controlled by network bigwigs in New York, this contest is being partly directed by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders in Sacramento. The Assembly Republican and Democratic caucuses have targeted the race for extra funds and are supplying on-site campaign management teams from Sacramento.
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) and Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr. (D-San Francisco) hold some of the purse strings at this point and are deciding many of the week-to-week campaign priorities through members of their staffs who are on leaves of absence to work in the race.
Easy Victory Expected
Nolan, who was heavily involved in Longshore's 1984 campaign, is strongly backing the realtor again, even though there is a contested GOP primary. Most observers expect Longshore to easily defeat Heaney in the June 3 contest. They explain that Longshore has built-in name recognition from two previous campaigns and that Heaney has little money, no political organization and does almost no campaigning.
At this point, both political parties are saving their big guns for the November election, each guessing how much the seat is worth to the other side in dollars and cents.
As a result, with major skirmishes unlikely until the fall, Longshore and Griset are spending much of their time contacting potential donors and talking up their respective virtues.