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A Popular Killea Faces Major GOP Drive to Oust Her

September 22, 1986|BARRY HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

When Republicans look at San Diego's 78th State Assembly District, they see a Republican district represented by a Democrat.

In fact, the 78th District is the most heavily Republican Assembly district in the state held by the Democrats. Chagrined GOP leaders, encouraged by a dramatic rise in Republican voters' registration, hope to change that this fall.

"That district already is a Republican district in its composition," San Diego Republican Party Chairman Bob Schuman said. "Now, we plan on making it a Republican seat in Sacramento."

Rather than react with trepidation to such talk, 78th District Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) only chuckles when she hears Republican leaders boast about GOP challenger Earl Cantos Jr.'s prospects for victory in November.

"For years, the Republicans have been calling this their district," said Killea, who was elected to the Assembly in 1982 after serving four years on the San Diego City Council. "But (Democrat) Larry Kapiloff represented it for 10 years and now I've had it for four. I don't know how much more it takes to convince them that it's not a Republican district. I guess we'll just have to prove it again this year."

Somewhere between Republicans' optimistic predictions and Killea's confidence lies the true nature of this year's race in the 78th District, which stretches along the coast from Ocean Beach to Pacific Beach, extending inland to the Miramar Naval Air Station in the north, south to downtown San Diego and east to East San Diego.

In recent years, Democrats have held a small registration edge in the 78th District--a fact that, coupled with Killea's popularity among independents and Republicans throughout her political career, enabled her to win comfortably in her two previous Assembly races. In 1984, she defeated Republican Patrick Boarman by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

However, an aggressive registration drive by the Republicans has resulted in a 17,000-plus shift in the GOP's favor in less than three years. In October, 1983, the Democrats held a 77,991-to-61,355 lead in registration over the Republicans. After finally overtaking the Democrats this summer, the Republicans, as of Sept. 13, had 43.6% (85,763) of the district's 196,821 registered voters, compared to 43.1% (84,897) for the Democrats.

Republicans regard that shift as evidence of a conservative swing in the 78th District, often referred to as a "yuppie district" because it includes neighborhoods such as Hillcrest, Normal Heights and Kensington and has one of the lowest median ages among voters--31 1/2 years old--of any legislative district in the state.

"When registration changes that much, I think it's because the basic philosophical makeup of the district is changing, too," said Cantos, a handsome 30-year-old Kensington lawyer who looks younger than his age. A former minority consultant to the Assembly Public Safety Committee in Sacramento, Cantos was handpicked by state Republican strategists to oppose Killea.

Killea partisans dispute the theory that the district has undergone a philosophical transformation within the past several years.

"I see this as more a case of hard work by the Republicans than a realignment of the voters," said Killea campaign aide Craig Reynolds. "You've got to give the Republicans credit, though. In a close election, nothing's more important than registration, because no one plays in the game without a ticket."

Concerned about the need to, in the words of Killea campaign manager Jim Cunningham, "stop the tide," Democrats recently launched their own registration drive. Over the past two months, that effort, largely underwritten by Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), has added more than 5,000 Democrats to registration lists in the 78th District.

Democrats also are comforted by the knowledge that Killea's strength at the polls traditionally has cut across party lines. In 1984, amid President Reagan's landslide victory, Killea even outpolled Reagan in her district.

"Another Democrat might have problems in that district in the future, but not Lucy Killea," said Bill Cavala, a key state Democratic strategist on the staff of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). "Voters don't weigh her on the same scale as they perhaps do other politicians. She has a special personality that translates through to the district and tends to be a centrist in her policies. People don't see her in partisan terms."

Regardless, Cantos, who describes himself as "fiscally conservative and socially moderate," has made it clear that he intends to try to cast the race in a conservative-versus-liberal mold. His absence of a record in public office, however, has forced Cantos to rely more on rhetorical generalities than specific examples in an attempt to expand on that theme.

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