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Democrats' State Senate Edge May Narrow

Legislature: GOP takes the early lead in three key races. Contests also rage for control of Assembly.


In three hotly contested races important for control of the Legislature, Republicans jumped off to early leads in districts long held by Democrats.

Returns in most parts of the state, however, were slow, and the battle for the Legislature was expected to go late into the night.

Along the Central Coast, moderate Republican Assemblyman Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz edged ahead of former Democratic Assemblyman Rusty Areias of Carmel in a state Senate contest. They were vying for the seat held by retiring Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville).

Elsewhere in Northern California, Assemblyman Richard Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) seized a narrow lead in early returns over Contra Costa County Supervisor Jeff Smith, a Democrat heavily backed by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward). Democrats were battling to retain the seat held by retiring Sen. Dan Boatwright (D-Concord).

In a spirited Assembly contest in the 26th District in the Central Valley, Republican Thomas Berryhill, an agricultural businessman and son of a former lawmaker, had a narrow lead over Democrat Dennis Cardoza, a businessman. The seat has been held by Assemblyman Sal Cannella (D-Ceres), who was barred by term limits from seeking reelection.

Despite the inroads Republicans were making in the Senate's Democratic majority, Lockyer was expected to keep his grip on the reins of power in the upper house.

The early returns in the Assembly were also providing good news to Republican Speaker Curt Pringle of Garden Grove.

In addition to Berryhill's lead, the GOP was winning in a race that Democrats had targeted. Peter Frusetta of Tres Pinos was holding a substantial lead over Democratic challenger Lily Cervantes, a Santa Cruz County prosecutor strongly backed by organized labor and Latino lawmakers. This was a rematch of their 1994 contest, which Frusetta narrowly won.

Besides the two Northern California contests, Republican control of the Assembly was expected to be decided in a handful of battleground districts in Pasadena, San Diego and Long Beach. Both parties amassed millions of campaign dollars, targeting swing areas with overlapping legislative and congressional contests to maximize their donations to bankroll mailers, TV ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Democrats were beneficiaries of money and volunteers from organized labor, which was trying to prevent a repeat of the national 1994 GOP landslide.

In the wake of a court-approved redistricting and changes prompted by legislative term limits, Republicans in California two years ago gained control of the lower house for the first time in a quarter of a century. Only after months of maneuvering did they finally force longtime Democratic Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco to relinquish the reins of power.

Charles Price, a Chico State political science professor, said that if Pringle succeeded in keeping his majority it would suggest a change in legislative politics long dominated by Democrats.

"If the Republicans are able to hold onto the Assembly, it would be indicative of a new kind of trend, of very competitive legislative races in California," said Price, author of a textbook on California government.

"The Senate is obviously going to stay Democratic by a fairly safe margin," he said. "It's the Assembly where there's a 50-50 chance" that the Democrats could narrowly return to power.

At stake in both houses is who will name committee chairmen, hire staff and control the agenda on pressing issues such as welfare reform, education spending and crime.

After staunch conservative Pringle took charge, for example, Republican-inspired legislation, long bottled up by Democrats, passed the Assembly. But the bills were typically derailed by Lockyer-led Democrats in the Senate.

On Tuesday, all 80 Assembly seats and half the Senate's 40 seats were up for grabs.

In the Assembly, there were 33 open seats and 47 incumbents battling for reelection. Currently, the breakdown is 41 Republicans, 36 Democrats, one Reform Party member and two vacancies in seats considered safely Democratic.

In the 40-member Senate, 10 incumbents were seeking reelection and there were 10 open seats. The current partisan lineup is 22 Democrats, 16 Republicans and two independents who often side with Democrats.

Senate GOP leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove last year conceded that Republicans would not seize control of the upper chamber this election, but he consistently forecast a net gain of at least one and possibly two seats for the GOP, which hasn't controlled the Senate in 25 years.

"We still think that one or two is realistic," a Republican tactician said as the party marshaled its forces to get out the vote.

The election Tuesday cast Hurtt, a wealthy Orange County industrialist, and Lockyer in their first head-to-head general election fight since each took command of his party in the Senate.

"The worst possibility is no change [for Democrats], and it could go up by one," said Lockyer as he handicapped the Senate contests.

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