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O.C.'s Umberg Weighs Odds on Atty. Gen. Race

June 01, 1993|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It's straight out of Boy's Life magazine, the sort of tale that prompts political cynics around here to arch an eyebrow. But Tom Umberg recites it unabashedly. Some kids want to be cowboys or astronauts; Umberg always yearned to become a big-time prosecutor--to put bad guys behind bars, to mete out truth and justice.

Now the two-term Democratic assemblyman from Orange County is seriously considering a bid to become California's top law enforcer, challenging Republican incumbent Dan Lungren next year in the race for attorney general. Although he remains undecided, Umberg has quietly begun the ritual of courting backers he will need from around the state to mount a legitimate candidacy.

"I'm not going to do a kamikaze on this," said Umberg, who doesn't expect to declare his intent until this fall. "The decision I've made is to see what kind of attitudes people have out there with respect to the race."

With little name recognition outside Orange County, where he is the only Democrat to hold an elected state or federal office, Umberg would seem to have slim chances of unseating Lungren. But the youthful-looking assemblyman, a major in the Army Reserve who served four years as an assistant U.S. attorney before vaulting to the Legislature in 1990, is being encouraged to run by several state party chieftains.

During April's Democratic convention in Sacramento, outgoing party Chairman Phil Angelides ballyhooed the Garden Grove lawmaker as a perfect candidate to run for Congress or go "statewide as the new attorney general of California." The last Democrat to occupy the office, John Van de Kamp, has also suggested that Umberg, 37, might have the political mettle and telegenic appeal needed to overcome long-shot odds in a statewide race.

"My sense of Tom is he's the sort of prototypical type of young man with a good heart and very good intentions who still hasn't lost that 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' quality," Van de Kamp said. "I think someone like Tom who brings a fresh face to a race always has a chance. It depends on whether he can raise enough money."

Therein lies one of Umberg's biggest obstacles. Although he amassed a healthy war chest during his two Assembly races, raising more than $1.5 million over the past three years, Umberg could enter the attorney general contest needing $3 million to $4 million to boost his name recognition and make a statewide pitch.

He also would probably have to face off in the June Democratic primary with San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith, who lost to Lungren in a tight race in 1990, or with Los Angeles City Atty. James Kenneth Hahn. Smith or Hahn would go into any race with a high profile, forcing a lesser known primary challenger like Umberg to mount an expensive campaign.

Despite such formidable barriers facing Umberg, the Lungren camp is not discounting the Orange County Democrat.

"Umberg's a wild card," said Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan Administration politico serving as Lungren's chief strategist. "But he has some extreme hurdles to overcome. In a primary against Arlo Smith, he'll need a couple million right out of the box."

If he survived a primary fight, Umberg would have to battle charges that he is inextricably tied to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and other liberal Democratic leaders, Khachigian said. Moreover, Lungren would be carrying the incumbent tag for a post for which experience is a must to gain the public trust, he said.

"The attorney general's office is one of those where voters aren't exactly crazy about someone doing on-the-job training," Khachigian said. "It's one of those where incumbency is a massive advantage."

Thomas A. Fuentes, Orange County Republican Party chairman, doesn't hide his loathing for Umberg, whose victories in 1990 and 1992 galled the local GOP. He contends that Lungren, a former congressman who represented part of Orange County, "would clean his clock."

Fuentes has also suggested that Umberg would be hard-pressed to shuck his image as "a puppet" of Willie Brown. Umberg has used "smoke and mirrors" to cloud his stands on the issues, Fuentes said, switching his floor vote once Brown and other Assembly leaders have captured a safe Democratic margin on key issues.

A perfect example of such politically calculated moves occurs almost weekly on the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Republicans contend. The committee has been stacked with liberal Democrats so Umberg can vote the law-and-order line, but the crime-fighting bills remain bottled up, they say.

"Maybe he's able to talk tough in the committee, but when the tire meets the road on the floor of the Assembly, his votes are not there for the victims of crime in California," said Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who was defeated by Umberg in 1990 before capturing his new seat last year.

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