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Mary Bono Handily Wins House Seat of Late Husband

California and the West

Politics: Actor Ralph Waite defeated by large margin, making runoff unnecessary. In Bay Area, former aide to Rep. Dellums ahead in bid to succeed him.

April 08, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Mary Bono surged past a field of five opponents Tuesday to capture the House seat held by her late husband, Sonny, in a contest that mixed personal tragedy with public debate over her role as a widow.

With roughly 80% of the precincts reporting, Republican Bono had 65.1% of the vote to 27.6% for Democratic rival Ralph Waite, the actor of "Pa Walton" fame. Four other candidates split the rest of the ballots--leaving Bono with far more than the 50% plus one needed to avoid a June runoff.

"I believe it's really very simple--running a positive campaign on the issues," Bono said at her election night celebration at Palm Springs' Marquis Hotel, where she invoked the memory of her late husband. "He'd be proud and he'd be thinking, 'I knew you could do it.' "

Conceding defeat, Waite acknowledged at his Cathedral City headquarters, "The voters made up their minds early and strongly." He reiterated his plans to run against Bono in the fall.

In a separate election in the east San Francisco Bay area, state Sen. Barbara Lee, 53, of Oakland was elected to fill the seat of her former boss, retired Rep. Ron Dellums, capturing 67.4% of the vote with about half the precincts reporting.

Democrats have long enjoyed a huge registration advantage in the Oakland-Berkeley district, represented in Congress by the liberal Dellums for nearly 30 years until he retired in February. Republicans hold a smaller but significant edge in the sprawling Riverside County district.

As such, the results Tuesday fulfilled expectations for both major parties, with each keeping seats they have held for years. Democrats--the victors in last month's special election in Santa Barbara--now need a gain of 11 seats to win back control of the House in November.

Mathematics aside, the Palm Springs race to fill Bono's seat drew nationwide attention to the desert playground, thanks to the combination of glitz, tragedy and celebrity that surrounded the contest.

The 44th Congressional District seat was vacated Jan. 5, when Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident at Lake Tahoe.

His 36-year-old widow, who married the entertainer in 1986 and stumped alongside him in campaigns for Palm Springs mayor and Congress, was the sentimental favorite among Republicans. Party elders cleared the field of serious competition to encourage her candidacy and helped Bono build a 3-to-1 financial advantage over Waite.

Waite, 69, who made a strong but unsuccessful bid for the seat in 1990, was hampered by logistic headaches as well as fund-raising problems. Before the special election was set, he agreed to star in a production of "Death of a Salesman" in New Jersey, a commitment he kept even though it forced him to spend four days a week away from the Southern California district.

Bono benefited from both an absentee opponent and the good will generated by her husband's two terms in Congress and four years as Palm Springs mayor. She also ran a strong race after a shaky start, turning an early set of nerves into a practiced and engaging style over the two-month campaign.

And Bono had history on her side--in this century, 36 of 38 widows who sought their husband's House seats have been elected.

In her public addresses, Bono repeatedly pledged to continue her husband's work, particularly his efforts to save the environmentally threatened Salton Sea. She also pledged fealty to the GOP agenda of improving education, shrinking government and ensuring the stability of the Social Security system.

Waite argued that Bono's only qualification was her widowhood, and urged voters not to translate sympathy into support.

He described himself as pro-choice on abortion. Bono favors the procedure only during the first trimester of pregnancy, would require parental consent for minors and opposes federal funding of the abortion. The two split over the minimum wage, with Waite favoring an increase and Bono opposed.

Leaving aside the issues, the contest assumed the flavor of a soap opera in its final days as Sonny Bono's mother openly criticized her daughter-in-law for seeking the seat.

Jean Bono argued that Mary Bono should stay home with her two young children. That prompted two other members of the extended family--the mother of Sonny's ex-wife Cher and his daughter by an earlier marriage--to rise to Mary Bono's defense.

The contest in the Bay Area produced far less drama, as the outcome seemed all but preordained. Lee, a former chief of staff to Dellums, ran with the incumbent's strong support and was the heavy favorite from start to finish. Her biggest worry was whether she could clear the 50% hurdle and avoid a runoff. She faced two less-known Democrats and a Republican.

Both elections Tuesday were held to fill the remainder of the current congressional term. The victors are expected to seek full two-year terms in November, after going before voters once more in the June 2 primary.

*

Times political writer Cathleen Decker and correspondent Diana Marcum in Palm Springs contributed to this story.

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