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Strickland, McGrath in Key Race for Assembly


It's still dark when Assemblyman Tony Strickland arrives to stand beside a stoplight next to the Ventura Freeway in Oxnard. Commuters cruise slowly past the towering bear of a man, often honking or offering a thumbs up.

"There's nothing else you can do at 6:30 in the morning to get exposure," says Strickland, waving to passersby. "If you're asking people for their votes, you get in front of them as many times as you can."

Politicos call these early morning sessions "Burma Shaving." Like the old TV commercial about the tingly after-shave, they wake up the driver like a bracing slap to the face.

"This alone won't win an election," says the one-term lawmaker from Moorpark. "But it helps."

If he wins Nov. 7, Strickland, at 30 the Assembly's youngest member, could become the chamber's Republican leader.

But that doesn't mean he is a shoo-in.

Somis kindergarten teacher Roz McGrath, 53, stands in his way. Again.

McGrath, a descendant of Irish immigrant farmers who settled the Oxnard Plain in the 1860s, lost to Strickland by an eyelash in 1998, nearly stealing the 37th District seat that Republicans have held for more than three decades.

Now she is back with a vengeance and unencumbered by the responsibilities of teaching. Democrats think so much of her chances--and want to beat Strickland so badly--that they have freed her up to campaign full time since school recessed in June.

"Hi, I'm Roz," she says as she canvasses a south Oxnard neighborhood. "McGrath," she adds. "I'm a teacher trying to get some money for our schools and for our health care system."

She has taken this message to the streets for five months, knocking on thousands of doors. Now she is in a mainly Latino neighborhood where Democrats mounted a recent voter registration drive.

"I've heard of her before," says Maria Luna, 33, a recent citizen. "I vote for Democrats only. Republicans don't like immigrants."

With Strickland and McGrath, voters in the 37th Assembly District, which stretches from Thousand Oaks to Oxnard, are offered a contrast in style and philosophy.

McGrath is a self-described moderate backed by labor unions, teachers, environmentalists and women's groups. Strickland is a Reagan Republican backed by law enforcement, big business and conservative groups.

Both are strongly supported by their parties in a must-win race targeted for heavy spending in the final weeks before the Nov. 7 election. McGrath says she will spend $750,000 to $1 million as the Democratic Party weighs in. Strickland, who had raised $565,000 by the end of September, says he will match her spending if necessary to win--and less of his money is coming from party coffers.

"Batten down the hatches," said McGrath campaign director Phil Giarrizzo last week. "It's going to be a barn-burner down the stretch."

A series of hard-hitting mailers, paid for by the state Democratic Party, began to arrive a week ago and more are scheduled for the days ahead, attacking Strickland's record on gun control, women's issues, health care and the environment.

Strickland responded Thursday with a statement by former Republican Rep. Robert Lagomarsino, who likened McGrath's campaign to the nasty assault of millionaire Michael Huffington, who knocked off Lagomarsino in 1992.

"Roz McGrath is continually misrepresenting Tony's votes," Lagomarsino said, "and unfairly attacking one of the hardest-working Assembly members."

McGrath said she had nothing to do with the attack ads. "The Democratic Party did it," she said. "You'd have to ask them about it."

Bringing the County to Sacramento

Strickland says he is running on a platform of tax cuts, small government, safe streets and HMO and education reform. He has championed a gas tax cut his whole term.

It's a record that includes few legislative victories, but the incumbent says he has highlighted issues important to Ventura County as part of the Republican minority in the Assembly.

"It's a much different campaign than it was in 1998," he said. "It's a referendum on the job I've done. I've got a great relationship with both sides of the aisle. I'm high energy. I bring Ventura County up to Sacramento."

McGrath says her priorities are improved education, public safety, environmental protection and affordable health care, especially for children.

"My campaign is about putting kids first," she said.

On issues often used to define candidates, these two differ sharply: Strickland favors the Proposition 38 school voucher initiative, McGrath opposes it. He opposes handgun licensing, she favors it. He opposes abortion except in the most extreme cases, she favors a woman's right to choose.

"His record proves he's an ideologue who's out of touch with the constituents of his district," McGrath said. "And let's talk about [religious broadcaster Edward] Atsinger and his $100,000 loan to Mr. Strickland. He's a right-wing extremist, just like Mr. Strickland."

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