SACRAMENTO — Sen. William Campbell's surprise decision to leave office is enticing Southeast area politicians to study voter registration figures and consult strategists to decide whether they should attempt a scramble up the political ladder.
Within hours of last week's announcement by the Hacienda Heights Republican, Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) jumped into the Senate race, prompting half a dozen would-be candidates, including former Assemblyman Wayne Grisham, to consider whether to seek his Assembly seat.
On Wednesday, Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who is serving his third term in the lower house, announced he too would be a candidate for Republican Campbell's 31st Senate District seat. The sprawling district straddles parts of southeast Los Angeles County, the San Gabriel Valley and stretches south to El Toro in Orange County. Among the district's registered voters, the GOP holds a 54% to 36% lead over the Democrats.
In a prepared statement, Ferguson said he was prompted to run because "Los Angeles-area lawmakers now dominate the Legislature" and that "no one from Orange County has ever represented the district," even though more than half the voters live in Orange County.
At least two other Republicans are considering the race. One is Brea City Councilman Ron Isles, who on Monday said he is "95% certain" he will run for the Senate. The other is Diamond Bar City Councilman Gary Miller, who said he might enter the contest for the seat, which will become vacant in January.
Isles, 51, said he is willing to spend $500,000 of his own money on the campaign. In a statement, he indicated that ethics could be an issue. Isles said that "the candidates who decide to enter this contest better not be carrying any political baggage." Isles added in an interview that his statement was not aimed at Ferguson or Hill.
In 1987, Ferguson, 66, failed to properly report some personal income and amended his economic disclosure statement after newspaper stories revealed the discrepancy. The Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating the matter.
Hill, 35, has been one of five elected state officials who are targets of an ongoing FBI investigation into political corruption in the Capitol.
Hill, who previously had been advised not to make statements to the press about the investigation, said Tuesday, "I know as much about it as I read in the newspapers. I haven't done anything wrong, and I'm running."
The four-term lawmaker said he has no idea whether the FBI investigation will be a campaign issue. "I get the sense that it's something in the past," he said.
But Democrat Janice Lynn Graham, 53, who last year ran for Campbell's seat, maintained that Hill "has a cloud over his head with the FBI . . . that might create a problem for him." Graham, a retired businesswoman and teacher from Laguna Hills, said she is exploring whether to seek the office, despite losing to Campbell by a wide margin.
Because registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in both districts, the Senate and Assembly seats are regarded by campaign consultants as relatively safe for the GOP.
Democrats acknowledge that capturing either district would be a long shot. But privately several Democratic legislative staffers say the party might be willing to pump money into a campaign if Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) wins a December special election in what is also regarded as a safe Republican Senate district in San Diego County.
The contest to succeed Campbell will be next spring, after the senator officially steps down in January. The secretary of state's office said Gov. George Deukmejian could call the primary in March or April with a runoff, if necessary, in May or June.
The secretary of state's office said Hill or Ferguson could file for reelection to the Assembly while campaigning for the Senate seat. Hill said he is undecided whether he will seek both seats at the same time but hopes to make up his mind by the end of the week. If he ran for reelection to the Assembly and won, a special election for his seat might not be held for another year, according to state election officials. Also unclear is the impact on the special election of campaign contribution limits approved by voters last year. Hill estimates that he has $260,000 in his Assembly war chest.
In Hill's district, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 48% to 43%. The district includes Walnut, La Habra Heights, La Mirada, a large part of Whittier, Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights and parts of Industry, West Covina and South Whittier.
Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier) said Democrats in the past have "busted our pick" without success to get a Democrat elected in the district. "It still seems pretty much like a safe Republican district."