State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) plans to challenge veteran Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) next year in a congressional contest expected to be among the most competitive and costly in the state, a key California Democrat said Tuesday.
Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), co-chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Hart is preparing a high-powered campaign against Lagomarsino, one of the Republican leaders in the House.
"I don't have any question he's going (to run)," said Levine, a close friend of Hart. "I believe it'll be the most heavily contested (House) race in the state."
Hart, state Senate Education Committee chairman, reportedly plans to announce his candidacy in January. He could not be reached Tuesday. His spokesman, Joe Caves, declined to comment on Levine's remarks.
The 19th Congressional District race is expected to be among a handful of congressional races statewide to be seriously contested. Spending could reach $1 million for each side, analysts said.
The district's independent-minded voters have given large pluralities to conservative Republicans Lagomarsino and President Reagan as well as liberal Democrats Hart and Assemblyman Jack O'Connell of Carpinteria in recent years. Much of Hart's 18th Senate District overlaps the congressional district, which covers Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County.
The race could generate additional interest because Reagan, whose ranch is in the district, may stump for Lagomarsino, an aide to the congressman said.
Lagomarsino, 61, a 12-year House veteran, was en route from Washington to California on Tuesday. His campaign manager, Ed Bedwell, said a Hart candidacy would not be a surprise because he ran for Congress in 1970--Hart's first bid for public office--and considered a bid in 1984.
"Voters will have an opportunity to look at two different candidates philosophically," Bedwell said. "It will be a tough race."
Lagomarsino, who has been easily reelected without serious opposition since 1974, has more than $350,000 in campaign funds, Bedwell said.
Hart, 44, will focus on aid to the Nicaraguan contras, environmental protection, particularly offshore oil drilling in the coastal district, and education, Levine said. Hart opposes U.S. assistance to the contras; Lagomarsino supports it. Hart opposes offshore drilling for oil; Lagomarsino favors limited exploration.
Hart has explored a potential race for months. He has spoken to national Democratic strategists about staff, money and Lagomarsino's record, consulted contributors and taken a one-week trip to Central America to become more familiar with the region.
He also recruited Jerry Seedborg, who had major roles in his 1982 and 1986 Senate campaigns, to run the congressional race, said two Democratic activists who requested anonymity. Seedborg, an assistant chief deputy to state Controller Gray Davis, could not be reached.
In addition, Hart is expected to receive fund-raising and tactical support from Reps. Howard L. Berman and Henry A. Waxman and their Westside Democratic organization.