With little more than a week to go before a March 14 special election, two veteran Republican legislators are waging a political cat fight in the race to fill a vacant 35th District state Senate seat.
The heated campaign between Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Placentia) and former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson of Newport Beach has overshadowed the other six candidates for the seat vacated in January by Marian Bergeson, now an Orange County supervisor. And, political observers say, it may allow a third Republican lawmaker, Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Cypress, to walk away with the race.
The election "should be Doris Allen's to win," said political consultant Harvey Englander, basing his prediction on her high name identification in the district and her ability, so far, to stay largely above the fray kicked up by Johnson and Ferguson. "If they remain in a cat fight, it's hers," Englander said.
But unless one of the eight candidates receives a majority of the vote next week, the top Republican and Democratic vote-getters still must face each other in a May 9 runoff.
In an unusual display of unity, meanwhile, a trio of lesser-known Republican candidates banded together last week to complain that the infighting has made it tough for them to make themselves heard, or for voters in the sprawling coastal district to learn about the issues that confront them.
"It's all just politics," said Robert F. Ruper, a Newport Beach eye surgeon making his first run for public office. "None of the three major candidates in this race are talking about the issues. They just want to fight among themselves."
Others in the race are Republicans Long Pham, a Newport Beach mechanical engineer, and Dan Worthington, who owns a Costa Mesa photography publishing business, and Democrats Madelene Arakelian, a businesswoman from Balboa, and Michael D. Palitz, a Corona del Mar businessman.
However, the hotly contested race--which could affect the continuing struggle for control of the Assembly--has been marked mainly by the political dirt flying between Johnson and Ferguson, two longtime Assembly colleagues.
Ferguson, who retired from the Assembly last year to run for the Senate, has called Johnson a carpetbagger who has "abandoned his voters" by continuing to represent his 72nd Assembly District even though he no longer lives there. Johnson moved from Placentia to Irvine last month so he could run for the Senate seat.
But Johnson, who has the support of most Orange County legislators and has outspent Ferguson, the second highest fund-raiser in the race, by more than 3 to 1 so far, has landed politically damaging blows of his own.
In a series of mailers to district voters, Johnson has seized on allegations that Ferguson encouraged Assemblyman Paul Horcher, the Diamond Bar Republican-turned-independent, to cast the vote that kept Democratic Speaker Willie Brown at the helm of the Assembly last December.
Ferguson has repeatedly denied the charge, saying he merely told Horcher to get the best deal he could from Brown's rival, Republican leader Jim Brulte.
Unfortunately for the district's voters, though, the heated political accusations have diverted attention from the more substantive issues facing the county and the state, said UCI political science professor Mark Petracca.
"This entire campaign has been defined by the politics of what Johnson and Ferguson are doing," Petracca said. "But there are three legislators in this race who have a decade or more of service. Their records ought to be the primary subject of debate, along with the question of what they are going to do that's different in the Senate."
Petracca predicted that the race would come down to a "battle between Ferguson's volunteers on the ground and Johnson's money," a struggle that he said could create an opening for Allen to slip through and win.
The assemblywoman, who has been criticized in the past for taking large campaign contributions from special-interest groups usually linked to Democrats, hopes to repeat a 1992 triumph over two male Assembly colleagues. That year, she defeated Assemblymen Tom Mays and Nolan Frizzelle in a tumultuous primary campaign, then easily won the general election.
Allen said she does not believe that financial support from the powerful California Teachers Assn. and other Sacramento interest groups normally allied with Democrats would hurt her candidacy.
"The reason the teachers have supported me is because I have always championed education; I don't think the voters have ever minded that at all," Allen said.
According to the latest campaign finance reports available, Johnson spent $258,000 on the race through Feb. 25, compared to about $78,000 for Ferguson and $43,000 for Allen. Even more significantly, Johnson had more than $141,000 still on hand, far more than either of his main rivals.
Of the other candidates, only two--Pham and Ruper--had spent more than $5,000 by the end of the filing period. Pham spent less than $9,000, while Ruper spent about $5,300.