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Candidates for Attorney General Trade Charges at Debate Taping : Politics: Dan Lungren and Tom Umberg criticize each other on such issues as immigration initiative and 'three strikes' laws.


HUNTINGTON BEACH — In a spirited 30-minute debate for public television, Assemblyman Tom Umberg on Wednesday criticized state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren for not taking a position on the immigration initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot, while the incumbent accused his Democratic rival of belatedly supporting the politically popular "three strikes" sentencing laws.

Umberg, a two-term assemblyman from Garden Grove, also accused Lungren of allowing the attorney general's office to be influenced by campaign contributions. Lungren did not respond to the allegation.

Both candidates, however, said they support the death penalty and oppose a San Francisco federal judge's ruling this week that use of the state's gas chamber is unconstitutional.

The debate--taped at the KOCE-TV studio for broadcast the last week of October--also featured Peace and Freedom candidate Robert J. Evans, a criminal defense attorney from Oakland, and Libertarian candidate Richard N. Burns, an attorney from Woodland Hills.

Most of the attention was focused on Lungren and Umberg.

A recent statewide poll showed Umberg trailing Lungren by 23 points.

During one exchange, Umberg said he opposes Proposition 187, the immigration initiative, because it is unconstitutional. He said that if approved by voters, it would cause children to be taken out of schools and left on the streets to create mischief and possibly crime.

"I think it's up to the chief law enforcement officer of the state to say that this is bad for public safety," Umberg said.

But Lungren said he remains undecided on Proposition 187.

"I have not fully resolved it," he said. "It's a close question because there's some good things in there; there's some objectionable things in there."

Because the initiative's constitutionality is being questioned, the attorney general said he is obligated to study the measure fully to see if his office can "fashion a reasonable defense" before the courts, should the measure win voters' approval.

Lungren also said his office has been involved in the three lawsuits filed by the state seeking to recover from the federal government the costs of providing education and other services to illegal immigrants, as well as increased prison costs.

Pressed by the moderator on whether he would take a position on Proposition 187 before the election, Lungren said: "I probably will."

Umberg quickly countered: "Right now, I suspect he's holding his finger to the wind to see which way it blows."

Lungren fired back, criticizing an Umberg bill that would allow the seizure of assets of major employers who knowingly and repeatedly hire illegal immigrants. Lungren raised the fear that while the bill targets major employers, "small businesses and housewives" would also be at risk of losing their property.

Both Evans and Burns said they oppose Proposition 187.

Lungren and Umberg also clashed over who was the first to back the "three strikes" legislation and ballot initiative that became a popular cause this year in Sacramento.

Umberg said he voted for it in April, 1993, as a member of the Assembly's Public Safety Committee, and "Mr. Lungren was not there. . . . Mr. Lungren appeared (later), but not until the TV cameras were present."

Lungren gave Umberg the telephone number for Mike Reynolds, the Fresno photographer who took up the cause for the "three strikes" law after his daughter was slain by a repeat felon.

Reynolds "said you were absolutely wrong on your repetition of erroneous facts on 'three strikes,' " Lungren charged. "I was there long before you were, I helped him write 'three strikes.' Quit telling these lies on television."

Later, Reynolds, a Republican, credited Umberg with voting for the "three strikes" law but said it was Lungren who first worked with them behind-the-scenes to write the initiative.

As the underdog in the campaign, Umberg opened the debate on the attack, claiming that Lungren's office has backed away from cases that involve major campaign donors.

He specifically referred to a recent San Francisco Examiner article, which reported that a top aide to Lungren "soft-pedaled" a consumer protection case involving computer companies. The companies were represented by the head of the California Manufacturers' Assn., a group that has contributed to Lungren in the past.

"Justice should not be up for sale in California," Umberg said.

Lungren's spokesman, Steve Telliano, later said office miscommunication was the cause of the mishandling of the computer firms' case and that Lungren stepped in to get the probe back on track.

Telliano also accused Umberg of taking money from gambling interests. "Tom Umberg is explicitly soliciting donations from people he will have to regulate if he is elected," he said. "That is putting the attorney general's office up for sale."

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