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Democrats Appear to Tighten Grip on Both Houses

Well-financed party is increasing its majority in the Assembly and might gain two-thirds control in the Senate. Registration shifts are important in Southern California.


Democrats appeared poised Tuesday to strengthen their grip on the California Legislature, increasing their majority in the Assembly and possibly gaining two-thirds control of the Senate.

A two-thirds majority in the upper house, made possible by term limits and shifting demographic trends in key suburban districts once dominated by Republicans, would be a vital advantage next year, when state lawmakers conduct the once-a-decade redrawing of California's legislative districts. Democrats have not had such an edge for more than three decades.

Combined with the Democrats' greater numbers in the lower house, the super-majority would also allow lawmakers to pass a state budget with little need to accommodate Republican opposition. And it would increase their leverage with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, whose moderate political leanings have often contradicted the will of the Legislature's more liberal Democrats.

Republicans conducted the seasonal war for the Assembly's 80 seats and half of the Senate's 40 seats with far less money and fewer resources than Democrats, who control the governor's office, both houses of the Legislature and all but one statewide office. Democrats had a spending advantage of at least 2 to 1 in legislative races, as their ascendancy brought them large contributions from big business, the GOP's traditional source of campaign capital.

That extra money, along with their usual support from organized labor and trial lawyers, allowed Sacramento's Democratic leaders to dump large sums of cash into numerous legislative races, targeting not only historical swing districts but also seats long held by Republicans. Republicans were forced to take a more defensive posture in all but a few races.

Early results showed Democrats gaining ground from their offensive, picking up three to five Assembly seats, bringing them from 46 to at least 49 and possibly 51. Early results also showed Democrats gaining at least one, and possibly two, Senate seats, which would take them from 25 to 27, with two-thirds control.

"Considering the number of seats we are losing in Congress and in the Assembly I feel like we've dodged a bullet," said Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga).

In the most expensive legislative race of the season--a combined total of more than $5.5 million--Assemblyman Tom Torlakson surpassed incumbent Sen. Richard Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) for the Contra Costa County-area seat, one of a dwindling handful of Bay Area political posts still held by the GOP. Both candidates were heavily bankrolled by their respective parties, with Torlakson gaining the financial advantage.

In Southern California, a shift toward Democrats that was evident in voter registration was again affecting outcomes in former Republican strongholds such as the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys.

The San Gabriel Valley's 29th Senate District--stretching from the foothills of the Angeles National Forest above Claremont to La Mirada--was one of those areas, said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento. It, along with the Rainey seat, was among the Democrats' primary targets in their push to gain a two-thirds advantage in the Senate.

Democrat Richard Melendez was running slightly behind Assemblyman Bob Margett (R-Arcadia) in early returns, but was moving closer as more ballots trickled in.

Melendez, a West Covina councilman who also serves as a Los Angeles D.A.R.E. police officer, had vowed to work on public safety as well as pushing for tax relief for middle-class families and small-business owners. He received most of his roughly $1.2 million in contributions from state Latino Caucus members and other party leaders.

Margett, who underwent emergency root-canal surgery Tuesday, appeared serene and confident after absentee ballots showed him ahead.

He vowed to help return property taxes to local governments and to reduce traffic congestion on the freeways. He received much of his $1.3 million from Republican Party leaders rallying to defend the district.

"I would have really liked to have focused on good public policy issues, like education, transportation and the environment," Margett said of the race, which turned increasingly bitter in its final days. But "all of a sudden we were hit by a barrage of hit mail."

The once overwhelmingly conservative 29th District is home to outgoing state Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), who was unable to run again because of term limits. It is now split between Democrats and Republicans at about 41% each, thanks largely to a steady influx of Latinos, who make up about a fifth of the area's roughly 375,000 voters.

In another competitive San Gabriel Valley-area race, Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena) took an early lead over Republican South Pasadena Councilman Paul Zee. The 21st District seat was being vacated by Democrat Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who was embroiled in a phenomenally pricey congressional contest with Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale).

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