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Decision '92 : VOTING IN THE VALLEY / AN ELECTION GUIDE : STATE SENATE / 19th DISTRICT : Wright Leads Starr in Funds, Recognition


Henry Phillip (Hank) Starr, a political newcomer vying for the 19th District Senate seat, is entering the closing weeks of the campaign with less money and lower name recognition than his opponent, veteran Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley).

Nevertheless, Starr, a 60-year-old Democrat from Bell Canyon, has continued his aggressive bid to defeat Wright, a feisty state lawmaker with a 12-year record of fending off tough opponents. She is considered a fierce campaigner and proven fund-raiser.

Starr criticized Wright recently for accepting campaign donations from major oil and insurance interests. "There's no way on earth, when she's received tens of thousands of dollars, that she can look at bills and not be affected," Starr asserted.

Wright has vigorously denied that campaign donations have influenced her votes in Sacramento. She also pointed recently to her support from other interests, including law enforcement and firefighter associations.

Her campaign spokesman, John J. Theiss, said: "Mr. Starr has the ability to go after the same type of money that we go after. Unfortunately, he is not sending the right kind of message that these organizations want to hear."

Between July 1 and Sept. 30, Wright raised $70,331, according to her recent campaign finance report. During the same period, Starr raised $33,439--including a $19,600 loan from the candidate to his campaign.

Wright and Starr are squaring off in the realigned 19th District, which includes portions of the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys and most of Ventura County.

Earlier this year, Wright won a bruising three-way primary race to become the GOP candidate for the seat being vacated by retiring state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita).

Starr, an attorney, has never run for office, is not well-known and has a meager campaign treasury.

Nevertheless, he has earned the admiration of the region's Democratic Party leaders for his assertive campaign style and his strong attacks on Wright's political record.

He has called the assemblywoman "Ms. Gridlock" for her role in the state's recent budget stalemate and "a woman against women" for her opposition to abortion and her other votes on issues relating to women.

But political experts say Starr, who expects to spend about $100,000, will find it tough to catch Wright.

"It's going to be very difficult for a Democrat to win that seat, there's no doubt," said Jim Dantona, a Democratic consultant based in Simi Valley.

Bob Larkin, a Simi Valley insurance agent who serves on the county's Republican Central Committee, is even more blunt.

"I would give him about as much chance as an ice cube in hell, because the registration is heavily Republican and conservative Republican," Larkin said. "And Cathie is conservative."

In the primary, Wright won with just 38% of the vote. Her key opponent, former Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette, who was endorsed by retiring Sen. Davis, received 33.4%

Republicans hold a registration lead in the district of 46% to the Democrats' 40%. In addition, they say, the GOP traditionally has a heavier voter turnout.

Wright, 63, said she will probably spend about half as much this fall as she did during the primary, unless Starr suddenly receives much more funding than he has.

She expressed confidence about winning the state Senate seat. "When you've been in office, you have to run on your record," she said. "I think people want experience. I have experience."

Wright, a native of Pennsylvania, moved to Simi Valley in 1965. In 1978, she was elected to the Simi Valley City Council. Two years later, she won an Assembly seat. She has been reelected five times.

In Sacramento, she became the first woman to serve as vice chairwoman of the powerful Assembly Committee on Ways and Means. She also serves on committees that oversee utilities, banking and environmental safety.

Wright's future in the Legislature appeared cloudy three years ago when she was accused of using her political clout to help her daughter avoid penalties for more than two dozen traffic offenses.

At the same time, Wright's alliance with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a Democrat who helped Wright in the traffic case, stirred anger among some of her Republican colleagues.

Nevertheless, voters returned Wright to office in 1990, and she has earned back the support of some GOP leaders.

Wright dismisses Starr's attacks on her voting record.

She defended her vote against a bill allowing women to collect damages for sexual harassment. "We have not yet determined what sexual harassment is," Wright said. "There has to be some definition as to what we're talking about over sexual harassment."

The assemblywoman denied that she is "a woman against women," saying that she fights for women on economic matters, such as equal pay for the same work that men do.

Wright also disputed Starr's assertion that her votes are influenced by corporations and political action committees that have contributed to her campaigns.

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