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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / LEGISLATURE

Low-Profile Races Have High-Profile Impacts

Strong showing by GOP in primary could bring hope of regaining seats. Decisive Democratic victories would signal continued control.

March 01, 2000|CARL INGRAM and MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — With presidential contenders and ballot propositions flooding the airwaves and jamming mailboxes in the final days before California's primary election Tuesday, candidates for the Legislature may never get the public's full attention.

Yet despite being lost in the clamor, their contests are full of important implications for California.

At stake in this year's legislative elections are all 80 seats in the Assembly and half of the 40 seats in the Senate. Due to the churn of term limits, nine Senate seats and 32 Assembly seats have no incumbents seeking reelection in the primary.

For Republicans, strong showings Tuesday in the open primary could indicate whether they can make a credible run in the fall to regain some of the seats they have lost in the Democrat-dominated Assembly and Senate.

Likewise, convincing victories by Democrats would help cement their majorities for the redrawing of legislative districts next year, which will greatly influence the makeup of both houses for the next decade.

Democrats relish the prospect of Gov. Gray Davis' signing a Democrat-produced reapportionment plan--something no Democratic governor has done since Jerry Brown in 1982.

"Reapportionment is what the whole enchilada is all about," said Sen. Richard Polanco of Los Angeles, leader of the Senate's Democrats and a leading campaign tactician.

Republican strategists say they hope to pick up a few seats in the Assembly and one or two in the Senate, gains that still would leave them in the minority.

Their efforts, which have drawn criticism from some conservative Republicans, are aimed in part at broadening their appeal by recruiting more moderates, women and minority candidates who would better attract voters in an increasingly diverse state.

That strategy reflects a pragmatic approach to recruiting candidates who mirror the districts they seek to represent, said Scott Baugh, leader of the Assembly's Republican minority.

"This is not an affirmative action program," said Baugh, of Huntington Beach. "Our mission was to find the best Republican representative that fits the profile of [a given] district.

"You cannot win 41 seats with all conservatives," he said.

The same political calculus is taking place among Senate Republicans. Last year, the Senate's top two Republicans, Jim Brulte and Ross Johnson, met with Paul Zee, a Chinese American businessman and local councilman.

He now is running for the San Gabriel Valley-area Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Adam Schiff, and probably will face the winner of the Democratic primary, either Assemblyman Jack Scott or Assemblyman Scott Wildman, in a highly competitive contest in November.

"I'd say that at least 75% of the Chinese Americans are aware that I'm running for the state Senate," said Zee, who has received extensive coverage in the Asian American press.

Term limits, once again, are having a major impact. In several cases, veteran legislators of the same party with nearly identical records are running against each other in desperate battles to extend their legislative careers beyond the three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate. Some termed-out senators are even reversing the traditional path of political migration by returning to the Assembly.

One especially uncomfortable contest for Democrats has pitted Assembly Democratic liberals Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica and Wally Knox of Los Angeles in the race for the Westside-San Fernando Valley seat of retiring Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles). The winner probably will prevail in November.

In spite of their announced intentions at the start of the campaign to avoid personal and negative tactics, the race has become increasingly shrill. The candidates spent $1 million each in their bids for the nomination.

"The personal aspects of the campaign have been difficult for both Sheila and I," said Knox, who has been endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, and major elements of organized labor.

Kuehl, endorsed by Davis, agreed that it is an unpleasant experience for both because they have been friends and shared political support from many of the same groups that now must choose one over the other.

"The greater problem, I think, is for our friends, who are anguishing about it," Kuehl said.

As has become the custom in political campaigns at all levels, negative campaigning has appeared.

In one of the season's most colorful commercials--dubbed the political version of the "Blair Witch Project" by Sacramento wags--one candidate questioned his opponent's integrity, not for his positions on issues, but for the way he hunts bear.

In the grainy black-and-white video by lobbyist Skip Daum, a GOP candidate for the northern Sierra Senate seat that includes many of the state's key hunting grounds, a pack of dogs is seen savagely mauling a cub bear as voices egg them on.

However, the man doing the hunting is not Daum's Republican opponent, Assemblyman Thomas "Rico" Oller of San Andreas, but an unidentified hunter. The video came from the Humane Society of the United States.

Nevertheless, Daum said he considered it fair, because it displays the type of hunting tactics allegedly practiced by Oller. Oller, who has employed his share of negative ads in previous campaigns, says the ads are out of line.

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