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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / STATE

Dollars Flowing Freely in Bay Area Race

The candidates have raked in more than $5 million in this year's most costly legislative contest.


SACRAMENTO — In many states, $5.5 million would be enough to get someone elected to Congress or even the U.S. Senate.

But in this year's most expensive California legislative contest, two Bay Area candidates have already raised that much running for the state Senate.

One reason is that the incumbent, Republican Richard Rainey, and his Democratic challenger, Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, are well-matched candidates who share similar positions on a variety of issues that neatly fit the district. The area includes Walnut Creek, Concord, Danville, Dublin, Livermore and Pleasanton.

Each candidate is an affable lawmaker with a lengthy political resume. Each cites education and transportation as issues he champions. And each says he favors abortion rights.

The 7th District is one of a handful of offices left in the Bay Area that is represented by a Republican, even though records show Democrats outnumber Republicans in that district.

Republicans are also quick to note that Democrats are just two seats shy of two-thirds representation in the state Senate--the majority needed to override gubernatorial vetoes or approve the state's budget without worrying about Republican opposition.

And there is California's everything-is-bigger-here factor. Just as houses cost more in the Bay Area, where the median home price recently topped $505,000 in Contra Costa County, so do campaigns.

Unlike Texas or New York, California boasts more U.S. congressional seats than state Senate seats, 52 to 40. So Senate districts are large, and candidates can expect to spend anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to send out a single mailer, said Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum.

California Common Cause, a political watchdog group, pegged the average cost of a state Senate race at a combined $1.7 million in 1996. It is not uncommon in hot races to exceed that amount, however.

"I've certainly never heard of legislative races in any other state coming anywhere near what we spend in California," said Jim Knox, the group's executive director. "A lot of that is due to the fact that California is one of only six states in the nation that have no contribution limits."

The most expensive California legislative race, according to Common Cause, was in 1998 when Democrat Wesley Chesbro beat Republican John Jordan in a race for the state Senate's 2nd District. Chesbro and Jordan took in a combined $6.6 million in contributions and spent most of that.

In the 7th District race, both candidates have benefited from generous contributions from their respective parties, with Torlakson reaping the rewards of the Democrats' current fund-raising prowess.

Recent campaign contribution records show Rainey has raised about $2 million dollars--roughly the same amount Torlakson has reaped just from funds controlled by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton.

"Unfortunately this is not so much about me and my opponent," Rainey said of the contest. "It's about John Burton's desire to have a veto-proof Senate."

Burton said his reasons for backing Torlakson are simple. "They're trying to elect Republicans, and we're trying to elect Democrats," he said.

Rainey won the seat in 1996 when he beat Democrat Jeff Smith, 49% to 48%. Voter records show Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, 191,631 to 150,051.

At least one recent newspaper poll shows Torlakson pulling ahead.

Torlakson, a former biology teacher and Contra Costa County supervisor, has focused his campaign on environmental and growth issues as well as gun control. Torlakson has criticized what he describes as Rainey's "uneven record" on gun control.

"He says we have enough," Torlakson said. "I say gun violence is still rampant."

Rainey says he waited to vote in favor of tougher controls on assault weapons and "Saturday Night Special" handguns until they made sense. "I fought gun violence for years," said Rainey, a former Contra Costa County sheriff. "I know what works and what doesn't work."

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis recently endorsed Torlakson at a rally held in the library of the middle school where Torlakson once taught in Pittsburg. Davis praised Torlakson for playing a key role in Davis' multibillion-dollar transportation relief and education plans.

Earlier that day, Rainey appeared at the Pinole City Council chambers, where he presented the founder of an organization dedicated to finding missing children with a $60,000 check.

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