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Costly, Volatile Dornan-Robinson Contest Doesn't Faze Voters

October 30, 1986|LANIE JONES | Times Political Writer

The 38th Congressional District, whose voters will choose Tuesday between incumbent Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), is the urban core of Orange County.

Within its 90 square miles, stretching from Santa Ana to Cerritos in southeast Los Angeles County, there are more than 18,300 businesses, three shopping malls and 12 Catholic parishes. More than 526,000 people live in its seven communities--all of Garden Grove and parts of Santa Ana, Stanton, Buena Park, Anaheim, Midway City, Westminster and Cerritos.

The district encompasses the heart of county government--the courts and the county administration building in Santa Ana--as well as Knott's Berry Farm, Disneyland, Anaheim Stadium and Movieland Wax Museum. Buena Clinton, a Garden Grove neighborhood that is the county's worst slum, is in the 38th District. So is Little Saigon, a community of 60,500 along Bolsa Avenue that is one of the largest concentrations of Southeast Asian immigrants in the nation.

With its bowling alleys, fast-food restaurants and modest stucco homes, the 38th District is the site of one of the most expensive congressional races in the nation this year. So far, more than $1 million has been poured into the Dornan-Robinson race, and with only days to go before the election, the spending frenzy appears to be far from over.

Confident Democrats

Democratic strategists speak confidently of the 38th as a Democratic district. The median income is $22,993 a year, and the population is 75.3% white, 27.6% Hispanic, 7% Asian and 2.5% black, according to 1980 Census figures supplied by Claremont College's Rose Institute Of the district's 199,683 registered voters, 48.4% are Democrats and 41.8% are Republicans.

"If Orange County has a place you can vote for a Democrat, this is it," said Michael Berman, a partner in the Democratic political consulting firm of Berman & D'Agostino Campaigns.

But these are conservative Democrats.

This is the same district that gave President Reagan 62.1% of its vote in 1980 and 69.4% in 1984. It is also the same district where, in 1984, the voters ousted a five-term Democratic congressman, Jerry Patterson, for Dornan, a conservative Republican, by a vote of 53% to 45%.

It is a district where the majority party, says Brian O'Leary Bennett, Dornan's chief of staff, is made up of "the Democrats the national party left behind."

Here are a few of the faces of the 38th District.

Until last August, when a jet airliner and a small plane collided in the sky above his city, "most people didn't know where Cerritos was," Mayor Don Knabe said. And that was just fine with him.

When anyone asked, Knabe would explain that his city--sometimes called the Irvine of Los Angeles County--was a nice little suburban community with 25 parks, 56,000 residents and "total freeway access" that was "just 10 minutes from Knott's Berry Farm."

On Aug. 31, tragedy put Cerritos on the map. An Aeromexico jet collided with a private plane above Cerritos, killing 82 people, 15 of them on the ground.

Scars from the crash remain. In the pleasant residential tract where the airplane hit, barricades are still up to keep the gawkers out. But the twisted metal and rubble from homes that burned have been hauled away, and some homeowners at the crash site are rebuilding, Knabe said.

Incorporated in 1956 on farmland once known as Dairy Valley, Cerritos receives $11.9 million a year in sales-tax revenue from its shopping mall and an arch-windowed Auto Square. Its residents have the second highest median income in the nation, $32,097 a year. And Cerritos boasts 25 parks, including a public swimming center that looks like a private spa.

Few Problems in Cerritos

Knabe, 43, is proud of his city's prosperity.

"We don't have a lot of problems," he said, as, feet out, he stretched beside a large oak desk in his office at the modern City Hall.

Because the city has few problems, its residents don't seem to care much who their next congressman will be, Knabe said, though, as a Republican, he is actively supporting Dornan's reelection.

Dornan has done a good job for the city, he said. After the Aeromexico crash, Dornan helped Cerritos get in touch with the right federal agencies. Before that, when architectural plans for a new post office were stalled last year, Dornan cut the red tape.

Not everyone in Cerritos appreciates Dornan's temperament, Knabe said: "He's too flamboyant for some of the Democrats. He's even too flamboyant for some of the Republicans."

Still, Knabe said, many residents have "a sense of comfortability" with Dornan.

In all, he said, the congressional race has not caused much of a stir so far.

At least partly because of the Aeromexico tragedy, "this community is having a hard time getting excited about anything right now," said Knabe, who lost a friend in the crash. "You think, 'Gee whiz. But for the grace of God, go I.' "

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