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California and the West

Race for the House Sees a Change of Pace

Politics: After several stormy campaigns in Central Coast district, the contest to fill late Rep. Capps' office has been fairly low-key. Special election will be held Tuesday.


SANTA BARBARA — One after another, wave after political wave has come crashing over the Central California Coast.

First was the anti-incumbent movement of the early 1990s. Then came the 1994 GOP revolution, followed by the 1996 anti-Republican backlash. The upheaval produced a series of notably nasty congressional contests and unprecedented political turnover here, with three different partisans prevailing in three successive races.

But on the eve of Tuesday's special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. Walter Capps, perhaps the most notable feature of a relatively benign campaign is the absence of any singular issue or signs pointing to a broader national tide. Indeed, the emphasis on home-grown concerns and hometown roots suggests this first election of 1998 is more about ripples than waves, apparently signaling a return to the more normal sort of politics of parochialism and personality.

Lois Capps, the congressman's widow, is running "to continue Walter's work of returning power to the people." Republican Brooks Firestone promises to take his entrepreneurial zeal and by-golly enthusiasm to Washington. Fellow Republican Tom Bordonaro vows to fight any outsiders who try to put their interests ahead of those of the 22nd Congressional District.

Each candidate professes to be "someone who is deeply part of the community," as Firestone put it last week at a forum in San Luis Obispo.

"What you get is a sense of this being a Tip O'Neill election year, where all politics will be local," said Amy Walter, a Washington analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, paraphrasing the famous adage of the former House speaker. "There doesn't seem to be any strong national wind blowing like we've seen in the past few elections."

Stuart Rothenberg, a fellow Washington handicapper, agreed. Times like these, with a flush economy and no major global concerns, are hardly the sort that inspire great political change, he said.

"At this point, it looks like 1998 may very well be a status quo election," said the publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, a capital newsletter. "All indications are that people are disconnected from Washington events and Washington politics and more focused on the state and local levels."

Forget that Democrats need only 12 seats to win back control of Congress, or that Republicans wish desperately to lengthen those odds by recapturing a seat they held for close to 50 years until Walter Capps won it in 1996.

Talk to voters here on the Central Coast and they will probably raise more immediate concerns, whether it's the psychiatrist unhappy with the health care system, the botanist worried about the environment or the Los Angeles expatriate who fears being overtaken by the traffic and development he sought to leave behind.

"People aren't looking to send any big message, or elect someone to help out [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich or President Clinton," said Bill Carrick, a strategist for Lois Capps and veteran of her husband's 1994 and 1996 campaigns. "They want to elect somebody who's going to go back to Washington and look out for their interests."

For all its grace, its charming red-tiled rooftops and the rugged beauty of its mountain vineyards and craggy cliffs, the sprawling 22nd Congressional District has witnessed some of the most churlish campaigns of recent years.

Investing $3 million of his personal fortune, Texas transplant Michael Huffington tapped the brewing anti-incumbent mood to oust veteran Rep. Robert Lagomarsino in a bitter 1992 Republican primary. Two years later, Huffington stepped aside to run for the U.S. Senate, and Andrea Seastrand, a favorite of religious conservatives, marched to Washington as part of the GOP revolution.

In 1996, Walter Capps avenged his loss to Seastrand after a bruising campaign that portrayed her as a right-wing kook out of step with the strongly pro-environment, socially moderate district where registration in both parties runs neck-and-neck.

The campaign was one of the hardest fought and most vicious anywhere in the country. Well over a dozen special interests--antiabortion activists, environmentalists, gun owners, gun control groups, unions and business groups--turned the tranquil resort setting into a battleground for their competing ideologies and warring agendas.

In notable contrast, the outside interests have been far fewer and considerably less strident in this campaign. "It's much quieter than it was in 1996," said Eric Smith, who teaches political science at UC Santa Barbara. "People are talking about things like education, health care, protecting senior citizens; but the rhetoric and the language has become much more restrained."

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