CHICO, Calif. — From the neat orchards of the Sacramento Valley to the tall timber along the Oregon state line, the scramble is on to succeed a Northern California congressman who figured he had been in the House too long.
Republican Rep. Eugene A. Chappie, 66, last December abruptly announced his retirement with the brusque declaration that after the relatively short term of only six years in Congress it was time "to get the hell out of here before they issue me a wheelchair."
Campaigning to replace him in the economically distressed 2nd Congressional District are Republican Wally Herger, a bedrock conservative three-term assemblyman from the tiny community of Rio Oso; Stephen C. Swindiman, a Shasta County supervisor and self-described "middle-of-the-road" Democrat, and Libertarian Harry H. Pendery, a Paradise physician.
The diverse 12-county district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 48.1% to 41.1% but tend to prefer conservative candidates, was once represented by such congressional powerhouses as Harold T. (Bizz) Johnson and the late Clair Engle. It stretches north from Sacramento to the Oregon line, west to embrace a piece of the Napa County wine country and east to include the Gold Rush foothills of Nevada County.
As the race nears the Nov. 4 finish line, Herger, known in the state Capitol as a genuinely nice guy but an anemic legislative performer, reportedly holds a lead in private voter samplings of anywhere from 5% to 8% over Swindiman.
Herger also has enjoyed an enormous advantage in fund raising over his Democratic opponent. The latest financial report ending Sept. 30 showed Herger having raised $415,805 throughout the election campaign to Swindiman's $144,995. Herger reported $39,297 still in hand to Swindiman's $28,216.
If there is one issue that seems to cut across others among the fiercely independent voters in this vast 22,527-square-mile district of valleys, foothills and mountains, it is the state of the economy.
Farmers echo many of the complaints of their counterparts in the Midwest: steadily shrinking prices and high loan payments. Up north, the timber industry long has suffered economically. Throughout the district, the average annual unemployment rate is 13.6%, the highest in California and one of the highest in the nation.
Nationwide, Democratic campaign strategists are counting on dissatisfaction with Reagan Administration farm and trade policies to boost Democratic candidates into office and are hoping the chemistry works in the traditionally conservative 2nd District.
Herger, who lists himself on the ballot as a rancher, reminds listeners everywhere he goes that he served as vice chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and is closely in tune with the problems facing growers. He boasts as his proudest accomplishment in the Legislature enactment of a bill he authored that toughened both criminal and civil penalties for growers who illegally apply agricultural chemicals to certain crops.
The bill, sponsored by the state Department of Food and Agriculture, was introduced shortly after 300 people became ill after eating watermelons contaminated by the chemical Aldicarb during the Fourth of July holiday in 1985.
Swindiman, 39, an articulate speaker who portrays Herger as a bench-warmer in the Legislature, asserts that to effectively assist farmers the federal government must "get very, very tough with our allies" such as Japan and insist upon opening up more foreign markets to American farm products.
"We should demand a portion of Japan's rice market, and I mean demand," Swindiman declared during a debate in Marysville with Herger, noting that rice and peaches are major crops in the immediate area. "To import South American peaches into this very community doesn't make any sense."
Herger, in what he termed one of his few splits with President Reagan on issues, likewise called for U.S. trade negotiators to take a more hard-nosed position with allies. "We have to be tougher bargainers," he said.
Later, in a second debate at Chico, Swindiman accused Herger of "changing his positions radically" during the last few weeks of the campaign, charging that he had abandoned his free enterprise-free trade philosophy on agricultural exports and now endorsed Swindiman's "get-tough" pitch.
For years, the timber industry of Northern California has been in deep economic trouble for a variety of reasons. But Swindiman blames government-subsidized imported lumber from Canada for "one-third of our economic slump. Most of the lumber trucks you see on the highways are hauling Canadian wood."
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a campaign adviser to Swindiman who once represented a part of the 2nd District, said he believes that, because of the slump in agriculture and timber, "people are going to vote much less the party line" on Nov. 4.
"My sense is that people want someone who is more aggressive," Fazio said. "They may feel that a moderate Democrat, who is a dissenter from some of the policies back in Washington, may be the way to go."