For Orange County Superior Court Judge David O. Carter, Feb. 4 was the day his life changed.
Wrapping up a murder case in his Orange County courtroom, the judge slipped off his black robe, met briefly with reporters and then drove to a shopping center in Garden Grove.
There, suit coat slung over one shoulder, Carter paced the sidewalk, buttonholing shoppers and asking them to sign his nominating papers for Congress.
In just one day, Carter the judge--used to running a courtroom "where your decisions aren't questioned"--had become Carter the candidate, walking precincts, raising money and trying to woo the voters of the 38th Congressional District.
The transition has been "a humbling experience," said Carter, 42, a first-time congressional candidate in Tuesday's Democratic primary against Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove). But it is also necessary, Carter added, if voters are to care about a candidate instead of being deluged with computer-targeted mail in yet another impersonal political campaign.
If he is successful in the primary, Carter will face incumbent Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) in the November general election.
Carter, of course, has used direct mail of his own, so far a mix of postcards and red, white and blue brochures sent to 75,000 Democratic households. But he said that he prefers "people-to-people" contact as he campaigns in a district that runs from Cerritos to Santa Ana to Garden Grove.
A law-and-order Democrat who calls himself liberal on social issues, Carter and many of his early supporters, such as county Democratic Party Chairman Bruce Sumner, believe he relates well to the conservative, low- to middle-income Democrats of the 38th.
If the odds of beating a six-term assemblyman are long, Carter still believes he can win. "The easiest way to lose is not to try," the judge said with a grin. "And there's no losing in trying."
But Carter is a newcomer to the 38th. Although he bought a condominium in Garden Grove in November, he spent the previous 10 years in Laguna Beach.
Chairman an Old Friend
Sumner first approached Carter in November, 1984, about running for office. Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale had just been trounced by President Reagan, and Orange County Democrats had suffered a major blow when five-term Rep. Jerry M. Patterson (D-Garden Grove) lost his 38th District seat to Dornan, a hawkish conservative who previously represented a West Los Angeles congressional district.
Carter and Sumner were old friends. They had car-pooled to the Santa Ana courts together and Sumner had followed Carter's career.
Carter is a Vietnam veteran with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. In 1968, Marine Corps officer Carter was shot and badly wounded while leading his platoon up a Khe Sanh hill.
After Vietnam, Carter got a law degree from UCLA and joined the Orange County district attorney's office. He compiled an unmatched success record in prosecuting felonies from 1974 to 1981, said his old boss, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright.
57 Convictions in 59 Tries
The 59 felony cases Carter prosecuted during that period resulted in 57 convictions, one not-guilty verdict and one hung jury, Enright said. Appointed by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to the Municipal Court bench in 1981, Carter became a Superior Court judge the following year.
Though Carter had thought of running for supervisor or the city council, Sumner's proposal caught Carter off guard. He discussed it with his four children and decided to run. Since December, however, the race has not gone as planned.
To be sure, when Carter made the rounds of the 38th District last year, he garnered support from some local union leaders and endorsements from 9 of the district's 12 Democratic city council members.
And last October, accompanied by Orange County developers and Democratic financiers David Stein and Michael Ray, Carter flew to Washington to meet with national Democratic leaders, including Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Coelho's committee promised to make Dornan their "No. 1 target in California."
But the promised funds are now on hold until after the Tuesday primary between Carter and Robinson. Carter and the Orange County Democrats backing him had not expected a contested primary this June.
Indeed, the judge said that he and Robinson met privately last August "under a big tree on the patio" at a local Democratic event. There, Carter said, Robinson promised that he would not run for the congressional seat.
Robinson said recently that he remembers no such promise.
Carter said his first reaction to Robinson's announcement that he would run was "anger . . . that we proceeded so far down the line" and that "he suddenly changed his mind." But that no longer matters, Carter said. What matters is "proving I'm the only one who can beat Dornan."