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Voters Go to Polls in 2 Special House Races

Elections: Favorites Mary Bono in Palm Springs and Barbara Lee in East Bay hope to avoid runoffs.

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

The two major parties appeared to be headed for a split decision Tuesday as Republican Mary Bono and Democrat Barbara Lee led the field in a pair of special elections to fill congressional seats in Palm Springs and the East Bay area.

Both front-runners hoped to avoid a June 2 runoff by capturing more than half the vote in crowded contests.

Voter registration favored the status quo in each race. Republicans were expected to hold the seat from Southern California's 44th Congressional District, vacated by the death of former entertainer Sonny Bono, and Democrats were forecast to prevail in the race to succeed Rep. Ron Dellums in the Bay Area's 9th Congressional District.

Democrats have long enjoyed a huge registration advantage in the Oakland-Berkeley district, represented since the early 1970s by Dellums, who retired in February. Republicans enjoy a smaller but significant edge in the sprawling Riverside County district where Bono was vying to succeed her late husband, Sonny, against actor Ralph Waite, a Democrat, and four other candidates.

Once again, the two major political parties were watching California for clues to the bigger campaign picture.

With the victory last month of Democrat Lois Capps in a Santa Barbara special election, the party needs just 10 more seats to win back control of the House of Representatives 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 Riverside County 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 and 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 course of 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.

Waite 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 procedure. The two split over the minimum wage, with Waite favoring an increase and Bono opposed.

In its final weeks, the contest assumed the flavor of a soap opera 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 other less-known Democrats and a Republican for the right to succeed Dellums, who said he was retiring to devote more time to his family.

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 contributed to this story.

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