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San Diego Election : Going for Broke in 78th Assembly District : Republicans Wage Battle for Coveted Seat Held by Democrats for 16 Years

October 24, 1988|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

Since the early 1970s, San Diego's 78th State Assembly District has been a maddening political puzzle for the Republican Party. The kind of puzzle where a piece or two always seems to be missing, driving the person trying to put it together to distraction.

From the Republicans' perspective, the 78th District is a Republican district represented by a Democrat. With 16 years of political history on their side, the Democrats believe--and have consistently proved--otherwise.

By the Nov. 8 election, the two sides are expected to spend a combined total of more than $1 million to prove each other wrong, which would make the 78th District race the first Assembly campaign in San Diego political history to cross the seven-figure threshold.

The 78th District is the most heavily Republican Assembly district in the state held by the Democrats--a situation that chagrined GOP leaders' hope, as they do every two years, to rectify this fall via the candidacy of public relations official Byron Wear.

"On paper, the 78th should be a Republican district," said San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Earl Cantos Jr., who has a unique perspective on the subject, having been his party's unsuccessful candidate in the 78th District race two years ago. "This may be the year it finally is."

The Republicans, however, have been offering up that "it's-only-a-matter-of-time" refrain biennially since 1972 without success. With that in mind, Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) only chuckles when she hears Cantos and other Republicans argue that, in Wear, they may have finally found the missing pieces to the 78th District puzzle needed to block her bid for a fourth two-year term.

"Given the nature of this district, I know every time that this is going to be a very tough, competitive campaign," said Killea, who was elected to the Assembly in 1982 after serving four years on the San Diego City Council. "But the funny thing is, even though the Democrats have held the seat for 16 years, the Republicans still call it their district. And when this race is over, the Democrats will still hold it and the Republicans probably will still be saying the same thing."

The 78th District

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 three previous Assembly races. In 1986, she defeated Cantos, 57%-40%, and two years earlier defeated former county Supervisor Patrick Boarman by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

As the 78th District race enters its final two weeks, both Wear and Killea can point to various factors that, by conventional political yardsticks, appear to strengthen their respective campaigns. Killea, for example, will benefit from an aggressive voter registration drive by local Democrats that transformed the party's razor-thin 43.6%-43.4% edge in 1986 to a slightly more than 5 percentage point advantage this year, 46% to 40.9%--a lead still considerably slimmer than the lopsided margins found in San Diego's other legislative districts.

The Republicans, meanwhile, regard Wear as perhaps the most formidable opponent that Killea has faced since she succeeded Democrat Larry Kapiloff in 1982 following Kapiloff's resignation to accept appointment to a Superior Court judgeship.

Name Recognition

A longtime Republican activist, Wear began the race with relatively high name recognition and a campaign organization already largely in place--the residual effects of a strong though unsuccessful race in last year's San Diego City Council election. Wear, 34, a partner in a public relations firm, won last year's 2nd District primary--outpolling two better-known, better-financed candidates in the process--but lost the citywide runoff to Ron Roberts, 54% to 46%.

In contrast, Cantos, an aide to state Board of Equalization member Ernest Dronenburg, was an unknown Assembly committee consultant when, at the urging of state Republican strategists, he launched his 1986 race against Killea.

"While Earl had to start at square one, I have the benefit of starting a few steps ahead," Wear said.

As they did in 1986, state Republicans leaders have targeted the 78th District race, viewing it as, in the words of Chris Jones, executive director of the Assembly Republican Political Action Committee (ARPAC), "close to an even-odds shot" at picking up one of the five additional seats needed to control the Assembly. State Democratic officials have done the same, realizing that Killea's victory is critical to retention of their majority in the Assembly.

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