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Top County Democratic Post Up for Grabs Again

July 12, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

One candidate for the chairmanship of the San Diego County Democratic Party Central Committee describes the job as "an exciting challenge." Another says it "has the potential to be a lot of fun." A third argues that the position offers the opportunity "to really make progress toward a real two-party system."

But perhaps a more candid assessment comes from one Central Committee member who does not want the job and half-jokingly likened the chairmanship to "being captain of the Titanic."

"Yes, it's important. Yes, the right person could do some good things there. But, my God, what a headache! Who needs it?" the longtime Democratic official asked.

With those divergent views as a backdrop, 53 members of the Democratic Central Committee will gather at the County Courthouse on Monday to elect their third county chairman in the last two years.

Four candidates are seeking the two-year chairmanship--computer consultant David Guthrie, party activist Kathleen Harmon, community activist and frequent candidate Mary Christian-Heising and Irma Munoz, chief of staff for Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego).

While all four candidates project a rosy future for the party, the situation they would inherit is anything but that. Even local Democrats concede that, for years, their party has seemed intent on proving Will Rogers' joke: "I belong to no organized party. I'm a Democrat."

In addition to the local party's most tangible problem--a long, dismal track record at the polls that has resulted in Democrats holding less than 10% of the nearly 800 elected posts in the county--the new chairman will preside over a party that is beset by internal squabbling, that faces the same serious financial problems that have long plagued the party and that only last week suffered the ignominy of seeing Republican voter registration eclipse Democratic registration within the City of San Diego for the first time.

Although there are 54 positions on the Central Committee, the fact that only 53 members are eligible to attend Monday's meeting is illustrative of the difficult rebuilding task facing the next Democratic chairman. The empty slot is the result of the party's failure to field a candidate against Assemblyman Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad) in the 74th Assembly District.

"There are problems, but that's what makes the job exciting to me," said the 34-year-old Munoz, who has worked for Chacon for two years. "The party needs someone who responds well to challenges."

Challenges are one thing that recent local Democratic chairmen have come to know well; the past three chairmen left under less than favorable circumstances.

In 1982, then-Chairman Floyd Morrow was defeated in his bid for reelection amid controversy over his desire to maintain his party post while running for a Municipal Court judgeship. Morrow's successor, lawyer Phil Connor, resigned mid-term in the fall of 1984, tired of dealing with infighting and dissatisfaction with his leadership. Retired teacher Tom LaVaut, who served out Connor's term, decided not to seek the post this year after a well-publicized feud with state Sen. Wadie Deddeh (D-Bonita) over Deddeh's support for Republican Gloria McColl in her successful 1985 campaign for San Diego City Council.

The chairmanship candidates do not dispute the array of problems facing them. But they argue that the party has made some progress in recent years--notably, in the doubling of the number of community Democratic clubs to about 40 in the last two years--and that the proper leadership could make the Central Committee more influential in local elections.

"The Central Committee isn't like an old Eastern political machine," said the 38-year-old Guthrie, who ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) in 1984. "It's just a group of volunteers. It may not be able to perform miracles, but it can be effective."

Guthrie's priorities include healing relations between the Central Committee and Democratic officeholders, establishing better fund-raising activities and initiating ongoing voter registration and candidate-training programs.

Former Democratic Chairman Connor often complained that elected Democrats, the party's most visible representatives and, therefore, its most potent fund-raisers, have traditionally done little to strengthen the party, instead concentrating on building their own independent campaign organizations. While that remains a frustration among party leaders, Guthrie argues that the Central Committee must strengthen itself before it can expect substantial assistance from the elected officials.

"Right now, a lot of the elected officials feel that their success isn't the result of anything the Central Committee did, so they don't have much incentive to get very involved with it," Guthrie said. "If we can offer them more in terms of available manpower during campaigns or build a data base that they could use, that might start to change."

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