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O.C.'s Umberg Still in a Spin After Defeat : Politics: The Democrat assemblyman who lost his bid for state office contemplates his future.

November 12, 1994|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It's enough to send anyone reeling. On Election Day, Tom Umberg went from Orange County's hottest Democrat to Orange County's most famous also-ran. Battered in his effort to unseat Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren by a decisive 54%-to-39% margin, Umberg will soon be out of politics and out of a job.

"I've been spinning the last few days," said Umberg, who abandoned his Garden Grove Assembly seat to run statewide. "I'm going to have to sit back for a little while and figure out what the future holds. Obviously, I would have liked to have been attorney general. But that ain't happening."

Yet, not all is gloom and doom. Even in defeat, the 39-year-old lawmaker remains remarkably resilient, the days ahead still his to seize.

Several prominent Southern California law firms have already called. His supporters talk optimistically of a possible appointment to a post with the U.S. Justice Department. Meanwhile, some politicos continue to insist Umberg remains a potentially hot property, tailor-made to run for Congress, district attorney, maybe even attorney general again.

"I think Tom Umberg has a good political future," said Joseph Cerrell, a Democrat campaign consultant. "Politics is the art of being at the right place at the right time, and he was bucking a Republican year and a Republican incumbent."

John Van de Kamp, former state attorney general, said his advice to Umberg has been simple: Follow your heart.

"I think he's got a bright future, but where he'll land I don't know," said Van de Kamp, who is now in private law practice in Los Angeles. "I think Tom really loves public service. I think he'll be back in that in some fashion or another. . . . I would think the Clinton Administration and (U.S. Atty. Gen.) Janet Reno would find Tom very attractive."

Republicans see it far differently, gleefully driving a rhetorical stake into the heart of the Democrat who had horrified them most.

"I have met few individuals with a greater naked ambition and lack of character than Tom Umberg," said Orange County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes, a longtime Umberg loather. "He is a fellow who would compromise principle and any inkling of values for political expediency like few others. It must be a terribly difficult thing to come crashing down with this big a rejection by the people."

But even Fuentes doesn't doubt that Umberg could rise from the political grave. "He's too much a government type to give it up," he said.

For his part, Umberg isn't ruling out another foray in politics. But such thoughts seem a rude intrusion at a time of mourning. "Right now the thought of running for office again is like asking someone who had a baby die if they're going to have more children," Umberg said. "You just poured your heart and soul into something and it didn't work out."

Moreover, Umberg's political career in Sacramento and the endless campaigns have greatly intruded into his family life. The silver lining of defeat is that he gets to spend more time with his wife, Robin, and three young children.

Umberg said he has absolutely no second thoughts about the tough tactics his campaign team employed in the attorney general's race.

As the underdog, he gambled on a television ad that attempted to do what might have seemed impossible before the race--to tag his opponent as soft on crime by blaming him in part for the death of 12-year-old kidnaping victim Polly Klaas. The controversial TV spot, which showed the girl's grandfather laying flowers at her memorial shrine, faulted Lungren for failing to obtain funding for a computer system that might have allowed officers to arrest her alleged abductor, Richard Allen Davis, before she was killed.

Lungren denounced the commercial as flat-out wrong, even before it was broadcast. Later, he criticized Umberg for taking more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from Native American tribes that were battling the attorney general over reservation gambling.

Umberg is doing no Monday-morning quarterbacking on the commercial or the contributions. The Polly Klaas ad, he reasoned, was necessary to get "everyone's attention" amid the TV tumult of California's high-stakes governor's race and the costliest U.S. Senate contest in the nation's history. Of the money from the Native American casinos, Umberg stressed that the tribes have "a legitimate right to electronic games on their reservations and a right to play in the political arena."

"The commercial didn't sour his future," said George Urch, Umberg's campaign manager. "People are always looking for the easy answer, and in this race that commercial was a wash. If anything, he comes out looking strong. He raised $3.2 million and he beat Lungren in most of the debates. He won the individual battles, but he lost the war."

That's an assessment some political consultants find hard to swallow. They suggest that the Polly Klaas ad, in particular, may have lowered Umberg's stock both with the public and political leaders in his own party.

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