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DECISION '98

Democrats Leading in Bid to Retain Control Over Legislature

Capitol: In partnership with Gov.-elect Gray Davis, they could make major changes in gun control, health care and educational policy.

November 04, 1998|DAN MORAIN and MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Democrats led Tuesday in their high-priced campaign to maintain control of the state Legislature, dashing Republicans' hopes that they could seize a majority in at least the Assembly.

If the trend continued, Democrats would control the Legislature and the governor's office for the first time in 16 years, opening the way for major legislative changes on issues ranging from gun control and health care to education and labor-related policy.

"For 16 years, it felt like winter in California," said a buoyant Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) during the Democrats' boisterous gathering at the packed Regal Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. "Today, we stand on the threshold of springtime--a time of putting working people first."

There were 80 Assembly and 20 state Senate seats at stake Tuesday. But most districts are heavily tilted toward one party or the other. So control of both houses turned on relatively few contests--five Senate races and a dozen in the Assembly.

Republicans opened the election year with hopes of whittling away at the Democratic hold on the Senate. The GOP also believed that it could seize control of the Assembly. But with Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren stumbling, the GOP fell short in legislative races.

"There aren't coattails in California, but we have been swimming with the current," said Darry Sragow, the Assembly Democrats' campaign consultant.

Democrats, beginning the day with a 43-37 majority in the Assembly, were poised to maintain that margin and possibly pick up seats.

In the Senate, Democrats hold a 23-16 edge over Republicans, with one independent, Quentin Kopp of San Francisco. The party gained a seat when Jackie Speier, a former assemblywoman from Burlingame, replaced Kopp.

Speier started her public career as an aide to the late Rep. Leo Ryan and was wounded in the Jonestown, Guyana, massacre 20 years ago as she and Ryan--who was killed--tried to help People's Temple cult members escape.

Senate Republican Leader Ross Johnson of Irvine raised $2.8 million this year for GOP campaigns. But that paled compared to the $5.2 million that Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco raised for Senate Democrats.

Underscoring Burton's strength, he loaned $100,000 to both Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), for his attorney general campaign, and Phil Angelides, the Democratic candidate for state treasurer. Burton said he offered money to Villaraigosa for lower house Democrats, but the speaker didn't need the help. Villaraigosa hauled in $5.5 million on his own.

"The Democrats could make mistakes and survive. We had to do just about everything right," said Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), one of the main Republican election strategists.

Among the hot Senate races:

* Assemblyman Joe Baca (D-Rialto) led Chino Mayor Eunice Ulloa, a Republican, to replace termed-out Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino) in the Inland Empire.

* Incumbent GOP Sen. Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove was locked in a tight race against Democratic trial lawyer Joe Dunn.

* In Northern California, Assemblywoman Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) led in a high-priced fight with millionaire Chris Quackenbush, wife of Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

* In a contest in which the candidates spent a combined $5 million, Democrat Wesley Chesbro, a former Humboldt County supervisor, was leading Republican John Jordan, scion of a winemaking family.

To raise money, Democrats across the state drew on traditional sources--organized labor and trial lawyers--while Republicans tapped agriculture, insurance and other industries. The most striking addition to the money race came from Indian tribes backing Proposition 5, which would give them the right to expand their casinos.

Gambling tribes gave $2.9 million to legislative contests this year, including $1.6 million in the crucial final two weeks of the campaign.

The contributions place them among the largest donors to legislative campaigns, and make them possibly the largest single source of money ever for state Senate and Assembly candidates in one year. Las Vegas interests, who fear that expanded Indian gambling in California will cut into their profits, gave far smaller sums to legislative races.

The Indians' money crossed party lines, so long as the politicians supported their cause. The biggest single recipient was Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), who sided with the tribes by opposing gambling compacts negotiated by Gov. Pete Wilson and tribes with smaller casinos. Cardenas, who faced no Republican opposition Tuesday, collected $340,000 from the major gambling tribes and doled it out to Democratic allies.

Indian casino interests also spent heavily against several incumbents who voted for the compacts. Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena) voted to ratify the compacts. His Republican challenger, Ken LaCorte, received $150,000. Scott was leading.

Phil Hawkins, a Republican, received $100,000 in a single check for his campaign against Assemblywoman Sally Havice (D-Cerritos). Havice voted for the compacts. Although six-figure donations can be enough to swing an Assembly race, Havice was leading.

"The Indians have proven themselves to be very good friends and horrible adversaries . . . and that will have an impact" on legislation, said one veteran lawmaker.

Latinos continued to make gains in the Legislature. At least three Latino Republicans were winning Assembly seats, pushing their GOP number to four. There are 13 Latino Democrats in the lower house.

Latino Democrats, who hold four Senate seats now, were expected to capture a fifth, and possibly three more. African Americans will lose one Senate seat, lowering their number to two in the upper house.

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