SACRAMENTO — For Democrats on Wednesday, it was a victory to savor twice over.
Democratic Assemblyman Gary Condit, fighting off a challenge from Republicans who sought to make ethics a campaign issue, won election to Congress on Tuesday to take the San Joaquin Valley seat of former Rep. Tony Coelho.
At the same time, Condit's victory will mean his departure from the Assembly, where as a member of the dissident "Gang of Five" he had been a thorn in the side of Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
"I'm really happy for him," Brown said Wednesday with a broad smile.
6 Republicans Defeated
Condit, 41, easily defeated six Republican candidates in the special primary election. With 100% of the precincts reporting, Condit had 56.9% of the vote. His strongest GOP challenger, farmer Clare Berryhill, received 35.1% of the vote.
Condit, the son of a Baptist minister, has been in politics all his adult life. He was elected mayor of the small town of Ceres while he was still in college. He later served on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors and was elected to the Assembly in 1982.
As an Assemblyman, he was best known for his efforts as a member of the Gang of Five to oust Brown from the speakership--a stance that may well have enhanced his reputation in the rural San Joaquin Valley.
The boyishly handsome Condit, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, cast himself as a friend of agriculture in the contest for the 15th Congressional District. At the same time, he favored the right of women to choose abortion, advocated national health care and called for increased government intervention to protect air quality and the environment.
In political circles, the race was seen as a test of the Democratic Party's strength after the resignation of Coelho, the majority whip, and House Speaker Jim Wright amid charges of financial misconduct.
Berryhill, a former legislator and state director of Food and Agriculture, had hoped to force Condit into a runoff by questioning Condit's conduct in the Assembly and criticizing the ethics of the Democratic leadership of Congress.
Raised More Funds
But the GOP strategy failed as Condit's campaign got off to a faster start, raised substantially more money and launched an aggressive absentee voter drive.
"This is a repudiation of the negative campaigning of Clare Berryhill," Condit said after his victory. "We out-walked them, out-phoned them and out-mailed them."
Condit won handily in three of the four counties that make up the district, Stanislaus, Merced and Mariposa. In Fresno County, the Democrat trailed Berryhill by 70 votes.
In all, Condit received 50,527 votes compared to 31,166 for Berryhill.
Condit's campaign received fund-raising assistance from Coelho and Democratic congressional leaders as well as from Assembly Speaker Brown. On Election Day, dozens of legislative staff members traveled to the district to help turn out voters.
Sal Russo, a Republican political consultant who advised the Berryhill campaign, said Condit's conservative voting record in the Assembly combined with the Democrats' grass-roots organization made him a tough candidate to beat. "Their campaign did an exceptional job of affecting the turnout mix," he said.
Berryhill, 63, returned to work on his farm in Ceres on Wednesday morning, saying the congressional race was his "last hurrah" and that he would not seek public office again.
Before all the votes were even counted, candidates began lining up for the next campaign--a special election to replace Condit in the Assembly. Among those interested in the job are three Democrats--Stanislaus County Supervisors Pat Paul and Sal Cannella, and former Condit aide John Lazar. At least two Republicans are also considering running, Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside and Turlock Mayor Brad Bates.