Setting up what is expected to be one of the most widely watched congressional campaigns in the nation, former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman said Tuesday she will try to win back the South Bay swing-district seat she relinquished almost two years ago to run for governor.
The 54-year-old Democrat, of Rolling Hills, took out candidacy papers for the 36th District post won in 1998 by then-Assemblyman Steve Kuykendall, a Republican from Rancho Palos Verdes. Kuykendall, 52, won a five-way GOP primary that spring, and his hard-fought victory over Democrat Janice Hahn of San Pedro the following November put the seat in the GOP column for the first time in six years.
"It's been frustrating to watch as Congress continued its partisan political bickering, but failed to enact needed reforms in education, health care, tobacco, campaign finance reform and gun control," Harman said in a letter sent Tuesday to past supporters, in which she laid out her reasons for seeking her former seat.
The district--which includes coastal communities from Venice south through the Palos Verdes Peninsula and San Pedro, Torrance and Lomita--is seen by most political experts as one of the main battlegrounds in the two major parties' struggle next year for control of Congress, now in Republican hands. And, with Harman's entry, the race now features two energetic, articulate politicians adept at running in challenging contests.
Moderates of either major party find a comfortable fit in the district, which tends to be conservative on taxes and other fiscal issues and liberal on human rights and environmental issues. An increasingly important issue in the district is the controversial proposal to expand Los Angeles International Airport.
Registration is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, 42% and 40%, respectively.
Kuykendall, who got a telephone call from Harman informing him of her decision to run, said he was not terribly surprised. He knew the Democrats were seeking a strong candidate and said that he is ready for the contest.
"I have a record to run on that I'm very proud of," said Kuykendall, citing his efforts to pay down the national debt, protect the coastline, help Social Security stay solvent and improve school safety. For example, he said he helped get funds to dredge Marina del Rey and to help restore part of the nearby Ballona Wetlands.
Anticipating a reelection challenge, Kuykendall has been very visible, attending key civic functions throughout the district, since taking office slightly less than a year ago.
Harman, stressing her pro-choice views on abortion and aided by her husband's personal fortune, first won the seat in 1992 and fended off challenges by conservative Republican Susan Brooks in the next two election cycles before deciding to give it up to run for governor and finishing third among Democrats in the 1998 primary. She has spent the last year teaching part time at UCLA and working at various political and other causes.
Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, in a recent edition of his California Target Book campaign guide, called Harman the Democrats' "best hope" for recapturing the seat. That view is shared by Kuykendall and by the Democratic leaders who encouraged her to run, including Gov. Gray Davis.
Harman and Kuykendall, who is also pro-choice, expect to have their hands full during their nearly yearlong campaigns, which likely will last through the March primary and culminate with the general election in November. At least one other Democrat, James Cavuto of Torrance, and one other Republican, Robert Pegram of Lomita, also have announced their candidacies for the race. The filing deadline is Friday.
"Jane will be a tough competitor," Kuykendall said.
"It's going to be a tough race . . . exciting and daunting," Harman said, adding that she made her decision on Sunday after weeks of weighing the pros and cons.