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California and the West

Close State Senate Race Echoes Florida Recount

Election: Just a few hundred votes separate the candidates in Central Valley district, and final tally may not be known until Thanksgiving.

November 16, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO and JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

STOCKTON — The future of the free world hardly hangs in the balance, but for the last week, California Senate candidates Alan Nakanishi and Mike Machado have been living in their own private Florida.

After a pricey, testy campaign to represent a district in the fast-growing Central Valley, Machado, a Democratic Assemblyman from Linden, awoke last week to find himself just 543 votes ahead of Nakanishi, a Republican city councilman from Lodi.

That's when a drama unfolded not unlike the one that has engulfed the nation over the selection of the next president. Such episodes, in fact, commonly play out on the front lines of democracy, in races for state and local office.

With more than 30,000 late and absentee ballots left to be counted after Nov. 7, the Machado and Nakanishi camps descended in force at election offices in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. They began to bicker over such points as whether the envelopes containing the envelopes containing the ballots were proper.

"Our progress has not been halted, but it has been delayed," said Larry Tunison, San Joaquin County's registrar of voters. "Everybody has the best of intentions, but sometimes they interfere with the process."

Weary-looking lawyers and campaign aides looked over the shoulders of election officials performing the tedious task of checking voters' signatures. They carefully looked each other over as well, watching for subtle opposition efforts to influence the process.

"It's a little bit of the Cold War mentality," said attorney Tom Gauthier, one of about 10 politicos camped at the San Joaquin registrar for Machado (Nakanishi herded an equal posse). "They have their guys here; we want our guys here."

The final tally is not expected until Thanksgiving. But already, there are signs the outcome could swing in Nakanishi's favor. The latest count puts him within 130 votes of Machado. San Joaquin County officials plan to count nearly 14,000 additional absentee ballots today.

GOP braggadocio is running high.

"Machado is going to be bleeding," Republican attorney Ben Davidian said in humorous exaggeration. That elicited a quick retort from Gauthier, who remarked dryly, "Machado is going to be ahead."

Machado, a 52-year-old dairy farmer, has remained mum about the standoff, saying through an aide that he will comment once the results are in. Nakanishi, a 60-year-old eye doctor, has been lying low as well, but is predicting victory.

"It's a mini-Florida," Nakanishi said. "When you go into a race, you don't anticipate something like this.

"I am not haughty or confident, but I have a grateful heart," he added. "A lot of people have helped me in this race."

The battle for the 5th Senate District, a super-competitive area where voter registration is evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, has little to do with the balance of power in the California Legislature.

Democrats will hold 25 of the upper house's 40 positions even if they lose the seat, which covers the fast-growing cities of Stockton and Tracy and the Sacramento suburbs of Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove. Term limits are forcing incumbent Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton) out of the post this year.

But a Nakanishi win would amount to a moral victory for California Republicans, especially the Senate's minority leader, Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga). In an election in which the state GOP lost seats everywhere else, including four in the Assembly, it would be a point of pride for Senate Republicans to emerge relatively unscathed.

"All eyes in the Senate are on that race," Brulte said. "It will clearly be decided by a couple of hundred votes either way. . . . My understanding is that one day there were 28 Senate employees" hanging around the election office.

The political scoreboard does not appear to concern the battle-hardened troops of election officials who diligently sort the boxes of ballots after election day. To them, nail-biter elections are old hat.

Most Americans did not know a chad--the peculiar name for ballot punch-hole scraps--from a chipmunk before the Florida election imbroglio brought the term into the vernacular. But the veterans of close counts in Sacramento County knew it: One election worker even named her son Chad in its honor.

"We call him hanging Chad," quipped Dwight Beattie, the assistant registrar.

The sight of Nakanishi and Machado minions in their midst hardly rattled the Sacramento workers. They were dealing with an even closer contest, a council race in the city of Galt, where a six-vote margin separated potential winner from loser.

"We've got a bunch of candidates who are very uneasy, and some people working for them who are very uneasy," Beattie said. "If one thing comes out of this election other than pain and agony for some people, I hope it's that every vote counts."

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