Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena have become California's most fiercely contested political battleground this year, strategists say, with candidates for Congress and the Legislature raising more than $10 million.
Feeding the flood of cash are the districts' pivotal roles in power struggles in Sacramento and Washington. State and national party leaders have said they will spend whatever it takes to capture the swing districts where the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys meet.
"That will be a nuclear war zone," said Assembly Republican leader Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach.
By the end of March, finance statements show, contenders in the area's four most contested races had raised nearly $10.3 million, surpassing the $10.2 million spent on the same contests over the entire 1996 campaign. The number is certain to surge millions of dollars higher by November.
At stake in the battle between GOP Rep. James Rogan of Glendale and his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Adam Schiff of Burbank could be control of the House. Democrats need six seats to topple the Republican majority.
In the state races--two for the Assembly and one for Senate--party leaders are jockeying for influence in redrawing the boundaries for congressional and legislative districts.
"The voter in this area will have tremendous influence on state and national politics," said Fred Register, a veteran Pasadena political consultant who is handling two of the legislative campaigns. "They'll be making real choices, and their votes will be making a real difference."
Come September and October, voters will face an onslaught of mail, phone calls, radio spots and television commercials.
"You are going to be deluged, whether you like it or not," Register said.
The open spigot of campaign money has another, less visible impact on voters. Whomever they pick to represent them will face an army of campaign donors trying to call in IOUs. Insurance companies, casino promoters, telecommunications giants, labor unions and others with stakes in government business have showered candidates with money.
"Conscious or unconscious, the candidates become beholden to the special interest groups that fund their campaigns," said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. "This is just a wonderful example of why we need to have contribution limits in California."
Districts Were GOP Strongholds Until '90s
These legislative districts have not always been so competitive. Until the 1990s, they were Republican strongholds.
"It used to be, you'd go to a polling place in our district, and four booths would say 'Republican' and one would say 'All Other,' " Schiff said.
But since 1992, the portion of Republican voters in the 27th Congressional District has dwindled from 44% to 37%. The Democrats' share has risen from 43% to 44%.
The shift is partly a reflection of a steady influx of Latinos, Asian Americans and Armenian Americans. In addition, the area has fewer conservative aerospace workers and a growing number of younger, more liberal residents in the entertainment industry, said Jim Hayes, president of Political Data, a Burbank firm that sells data on voters to campaigns.
The demographic changes have transformed the area into a swing district. There are other clusters of hotly contested races: in Long Beach, San Diego and Contra Costa County in the Bay Area.
But strategists say the Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena triangle is the only area with four overlapping, knockdown fights. And they're taking place in one of the nation's costliest media markets, forcing candidates to raise extra money.
"This is probably the most expensive set of circumstances you could possibly have," said Darry Sragow, the chief campaign strategist for Assembly Democrats.
"It's a unique cluster, because everything in the area is competitive," Hayes said. "I don't see any place in the state where that kind of money will be spent."
The congressional race is already the most expensive in California. Rogan and Schiff combined have raised about $5.7 million, more than triple the $1.8 million spent by Rogan and his Democratic challenger in the entire 1998 campaign.
Schiff expects that the district's primary and general elections combined could turn out to be the most expensive congressional race in the nation's history.
"Believe me, it's not a distinction I was looking for," Schiff said.
Rogan, who has raised $3.8 million, has collected more than any other House candidate in the nation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that studies campaign funding.
In fund-raising letters to conservative donors, Rogan has trumpeted his role as a House prosecutor in the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton. In one, he warned that Clinton's "Hollywood liberal friends," such as "radical left-wing movie mogul David Geffen," were bankrolling Schiff in a crusade of revenge.
For his part, Schiff has recruited Clinton as the star attraction for a fund-raiser next month in Washington.