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GOP Survivor

Politics: Lynne Leach sailed to a reelection victory in the 15th Assembly District, faring better than other Republican candidates in the Bay Area.


SACRAMENTO — You've heard of the last of the Mohicans? Well, in the San Francisco Bay area, there is the last of the Republicans.

Assemblywoman Lynne C. Leach, the white-haired owner of a communications firm, is hardly one of the better known names in California's GOP. But in the Tuesday blood bath in which Republicans lost to Democrats all but one of the legislative and congressional seats wholly contained in the Bay Area, it was Leach who emerged unscathed.

"She's bulletproof," quipped Lopa Mehrotra, executive director of a local Republican fund-raising group.

Leach, 60, pulled off a 61% to 39% reelection victory over her Democratic opponent, Gregory Rolen, a former prosecutor.

An array of her Republican counterparts in the Bay Area were not as successful.

* Republican Rep. Tom Campbell vacated his Silicon Valley-area House seat to challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein and lost badly to the Democrat.

* In the battle to succeed Campbell, Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) defeated Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-Cupertino) for a congressional seat. Democrats also beat Republicans for the Assembly seats vacated by Cunneen and Honda.

* Democratic incumbent Ellen Tauscher fended off a challenge from Republican Claude Hutchison for a congressional seat in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

* Finally, Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) bested incumbent Sen. Dick Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) in a race for the 7th District of the state Senate.

Leach's Assembly district is within the boundaries of the 7th District--the battleground for the most expensive California legislative race in this election.

The aggressive campaign run by the well-funded and energetic Torlakson, who tirelessly walked precincts in Leach's district, led some political observers to peg Leach as vulnerable. But in the end she held on.

Leach benefited in part from the fact that the 15th Assembly District, which she has represented since 1996, has more registered Republicans than Democrats, 91,464 versus 78,868.

"It's the most Republican district in the Bay Area," according to GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum. He added that women voters in the area have also tended to favor female candidates, regardless of their party affiliations.

Can Republicans learn from the survival tactics that helped Leach pull off a victory? Absolutely, she said.

"You work the district every day," Leach said. "You can't ignore your constituency."

Leach is one of the rare legislators who commute daily--about an hour each way for her--between the capital and her district, which includes Walnut Creek, San Ramon, Lafayette, Orinda, Danville, Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore.

"It allows me to be visible and active in the district, even through the session," she explained.

Leach regularly attends local functions, sends legislative updates to district residents and holds town hall meetings. She even hosts a monthly local cable television show.

Come election time, Leach said, she and her staff double their efforts. Grocery stores are among her favorite haunts to meet and greet potential voters.

Leach dons a variety of hats as she goes about her business. At a campaign stop in Walnut Creek, she boisterously rallied a crowd of several hundred with promises of lower taxes, more local control and less government.

By contrast, Leach maintains a low-key presence in the Assembly chambers and in committee meetings.

"I like to choose my moments," she said. "I select carefully when and where I'll speak and what circumstances. . . . Sometimes I think some of my colleagues tend to over-participate when it comes to speaking."

Leach knows a lot about speaking. She founded a communications firm in 1978 and continues to work with businesses and individuals by helping them develop their public speaking, customer service and sales skills.

Her business background has served Leach well in the Legislature, where she is vice chairwoman of the Assembly's education committee and also sits on the transportation committee. Earlier this year, Leach joined Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) in leading a push for a child care tax credit.

"When you do business with people, you don't go out and attack them," Leach said. "You sit down and find common ground."

Hoffenblum, who managed Leach's first Assembly campaign, said she did just that to shore up support from both moderate and conservative Republicans.

"She works the district by . . . not coming across as an ideologue," Hoffenblum said.

Term limits will force Leach from her Assembly seat in 2002, but there is already talk of a possible run for Congress or perhaps a bid for the state Senate in 2004.

In the meantime, Leach plans to engage in the uphill battle of rebuilding the Republican party's presence in the Bay Area, in part by better preparing GOP candidates to run for office.

"I'm ready and willing to share the experience and the formula that has worked for me," she said.

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