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California and the West

Widow Leads in Special Election for Rep. Capps' Seat

Politics: Republicans are locked in close fight for possible runoff. Democrat Cedillo wins easily in Assembly race.


Hoping for a knockout victory Tuesday, Santa Barbara Democrat Lois Capps was teetering just shy of the 50% she needed to avoid a March runoff to fill the congressional seat vacated by the death of her husband, freshman Rep. Walter Capps.

With roughly one-third of precincts reporting, Capps led a six-candidate field with 49% of the vote--easily enough to finish first, but just barely short of the 50% needed to win election outright.

On the Republican side, fellow Assemblymen Tom Bordonaro Jr. of Paso Robles and Brooks Firestone of Los Olivos were locked in a close fight to emerge as Capps' GOP opponent in a possible March 13 runoff. Bordonaro was leading in partial returns, with 26% to 25% for Firestone.

"Do you own fingernail cutters?" Brandon Edwards, a Firestone spokesman, asked as the first results were announced. "It's going to be close."

Three other lesser-known candidates split the rest of the vote.

With Republicans holding a 227-203 majority in the House, the major parties were closely watching the outcome of this first congressional contest of 1998. Democrats need to gain 12 seats to win back control of the House and had hoped to boost their chances Tuesday by capturing outright the seat Walter Capps won in 1996 after nearly 50 years of Republican reign.

Tens of thousands of absentee ballots were cast before the polls even opened, suggesting that turnout could exceed 50%, an unusually high rate of participation for a preseason election.

Indeed, in Los Angeles, voter turnout was light Tuesday for the special runoff to fill the vacant seat in the 46th Assembly District, a race Democrat Gil Cedillo easily won over Republican Andrew Kim and Libertarian Patrick Westerberg.

With 32 of 47 precincts reporting, Cedillo was leading by a commanding 3-1 margin. He had 4,938 votes, or 74.7%, to Kim's 1,478, or 22.4%.

Cedillo said Tuesday night that he plans to hop a flight this (weds)afternoon to Sacramento. "I'm going to work," he said.

The race in California's 22nd Congressional District, in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, was precipitated by the death last October of Walter Capps, 63, who suffered a fatal heart attack 10 months into his first term. His successor will serve out the rest of his term--until Jan. 1999--and become the automatic favorite to win a full two-year term in November.

Democrats immediately cleared the field for Capps' 60-year-old widow, a former Santa Barbara school nurse, who said she was running to continue her husband's work on issues like health care, education and bringing civility to Congress.

The tragic circumstances surrounding the race--and the fact that much of the campaigning took place over the holidays--largely shielded Capps from partisan assault, although Republicans stepped up their rhetoric in a series of last-minute attack mailers sponsored by the state GOP.

Most of the animus, however, occurred on the Republican side.

Firestone, 61, a vintner and two-term assemblyman from just outside Santa Barbara, was recruited by party leaders who felt his relative moderation made him the strongest entrant in a district in which voter registration is evenly split.

But efforts to clear the GOP field proved unsuccessful as Bordonaro, 38, jumped into the contest and made his defiance of party leaders a centerpiece of his campaign. The two-term assemblyman, from the more conservative northern half of the district, repeatedly assailed Firestone as being too liberal.

Vastly outspent by his wealthy rival, an heir to the Firestone tire and rubber fortune, Bordonaro was helped by extensive TV advertising financed by fellow conservatives opposed to Firestone's position in favor of abortion rights. At the same time, he was attacked in a separate independent ad campaign for refusing to sign a pledge--ratified by Capps and Firestone--to limit himself to three terms in office.

Although a handful of special-interest groups sought to use the race as a testing ground for messages in the 1998 campaign, the level never approached that of bitter contests in 1994 and 1996. "There doesn't seem to be any real burning issues, or central focus for people to rally around," Bordonaro said before the vote, noting that residents seemed to care more about individual concerns.

Times staff writer Alan Abrahamson contributed to this story.

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