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STATE ELECTIONS / LEGISLATURE : GOP Incumbents Try to Fend Off Feisty Challenges

October 31, 1994|LEN HALL and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Amid the predictability of Republican conquests in Orange County's state legislative races are a few battles where feisty Democratic underdogs are at least making life interesting for the GOP incumbents.

Most notable are the 34th Senate and 68th Assembly District races. Each features a longtime City Council member--Buena Park's Donna L. Chessen and Anaheim's Irv Pickler, respectively--challenging well-financed Republicans, state Sen. Rob Hurtt and Assemblyman Curt Pringle.

But the indisputable marquee race in Orange County is the knock-down, drag-out contest in the 69th Assembly District. As Democrats and Republicans wage war for control of the Assembly, the brawling 69th has become one of the most closely watched legislative races in the state this year.

The stage was set last spring when Democrat Tom Umberg announced he was vacating the seat to run for attorney general.

Now voters in the heavily Latino, blue-collar district encompassing Santa Ana and parts of Anaheim and Garden Grove are watching two little-known candidates slug it out in a battle that could be a microcosm for politics this year nationwide: more vitriol than virtue.

Charges of fraud, of theft, of misrepresentation seem to ring out from both camps almost daily. But aides of Republican Jim Morrissey and Democrat Mike Metzler agree that no Assembly race is being watched more closely.

"This is probably the No. 1 targeted seat among the Democrats and the Republicans in the whole state Assembly delegation," said Mark Thompson, a political consultant working for the Morrissey campaign.

The stakes are huge for both parties. Democrats want desperately to keep a toehold in Orange County, and Umberg's old district is the only state or federal office they possess in the GOP bastion. Republicans see the race as a way not only to secure another seat in Sacramento for their side, but to give the party 100% control of the county.

Morrissey, a 64-year-old manufacturer from Anaheim who is anti-abortion and a proponent of Proposition 187, which would bar education and most social service benefits for illegal immigrants, was running well in early polls. His campaign attributes it to Morrissey's folksy style and diligence at walking precincts to meet the voters.

"I've already walked 72 of the 123 precincts in the district by myself," Morrissey said. "This is a working-class district and I'm a tool and die maker by trade and people can relate to that. I'm one of the few people running for office that has signed both sides of a paycheck, front and back."

Metzler's camp claims the Republicans gained early momentum by not only confusing the voters, but by lying to them. Angered that Morrissey was misrepresenting Metzler's stand supporting the "three strikes" anti-crime law, Metzler was forced to call a press conference recently to publicize his position.

"Morrissey's people seem to be going at our strengths, our strong stands against crime and for business, and trying to convince people they don't exist," said Rich Milner, a Metzler aide. "It's an interesting approach, but it's clearly very fraudulent."

Metzler, 46, the president of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce for the past 11 years, is an abortion rights advocate and an opponent of Proposition 187. But, after a bitter primary against two Latino challengers, he has little time left to get out and take advantage of the Democratic majority in the district, of his endorsement from Umberg and his many backers among local police organizations.

"Mike not only has the support of law enforcement and supports tough crime prevention but has done a lot in the community to back it up . . . things such as anti-gang programs and scholarship programs," Milner said. "We need to get out and make it clear who is on whose side."

Also on the ballot is Libertarian George Reis, a police photographer from Santa Ana.

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In the 34th Senate District, Chessen has demonstrated moxie just by taking on Hurtt, a wealthy manufacturer who has cut a wide swath in Sacramento with his conservative politics and willingness to finance his brand of candidates and causes.

Senate Democratic leaders, who make no secret of their dislike for Hurtt, have talked openly of funneling campaign money to Chessen in an effort to neutralize the Republican's spending or possibly even defeat him.

To that end, Chessen has been busy trying to portray Hurtt as a lawmaker more adept at funding campaigns and playing politics than taking care of the district, which sprawls across parts of Garden Grove, Buena Park, Santa Ana and Anaheim. She also criticizes him for missing key committee votes, supporting last year's unsuccessful school voucher initiative and his staunch opposition to abortion.

"He's trying to be a kingmaker," said Chessen, a Buena Park councilwoman for the past nine years. "Where the rubber meets the road, he hasn't been there for the district."

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