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Underdogs Unlikely to Have Their Day

Democrats in 33rd, 35th districts fight on despite huge disparities in funding, name recognition and registration.


Don't tell Democratic state Senate candidate Steve Ray that the odds are long or that Republican registration in his sprawling district nearly doubles his party's. Don't remind him that he's running against an incumbent who has held state office since 1978.

And definitely don't mention that pundits have practically written off his 35th District race as well as that in the neighboring 33rd, lamenting the lack of any real "issues."

Ray will hear none of that. He even entertains notions of winning.

"If I didn't think that Ross Johnson was vulnerable, I wouldn't have committed a year of my life to doing what I'm doing now," says Ray, a Huntington Beach businessman and eternal optimist.

"Our goal has been from day one to win and that hasn't changed. . . . But it's a very, very difficult undertaking."

In the 35th District, which encompasses much of Orange County's coastal cities and several inland, Ray is challenging state Sen. Ross Johnson, an Irvine resident who was first elected to the Assembly more than 20 years ago. Johnson joined the Senate in 1995 and until recently served as the minority leader.

Next door, in the 33rd District, Republican Assemblyman Dick Ackerman of Fullerton, is hoping to take over the seat held by Republican Sen. John Lewis, who is stepping down because of term limits. Ackerman's chief opponent is Democrat Jack Roberts, a labor representative who--like Ray--has never held public office.

Others on the ballot for the 33rd District are Michael E. Chacon, a Tustin Libertarian, and Anaheim resident William Verkamp, the Natural Law candidate.

The Natural Law candidate running in the 35th District is Cindy Katz, a Tustin chiropractor. Paul L. Studier of Lake Forest carries the Libertarian Party banner.

It would be nothing short of a miracle for Ray and Roberts to pull off victories, political consultants say. They face incumbents with name recognition and money and an uphill battle trying to win crossover votes.

"This means--surprise, surprise--these two incumbents will win," said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine.

"And to boot, I suppose, there's no issue," he said, since there have been no scandals involving the incumbents.

If Johnson and Ackerman cruise to victory as expected, they will join the Senate's Republican minority with little power to push their legislation through. With some races too close to call, Democrats could gain an even stronger grip on power by forming a veto-proof Senate.

Simply put, these races are yawners, say Petracca and Scott Hart, a consultant with Ellis/Hart Associates in Irvine.

Ackerman says his chief issue is making the state and county more "business friendly." He opposed the reinstitution of the eight-hour workday for overtime and is working to find exemptions for businesses.

Johnson describes himself as a law-and-order advocate. He also says he has a reputation for opposing increased taxes. During the next term--which would be his last under term limits--he hopes to ensure that more state money flows into Orange County.

But both Ray and Roberts want to make inroads among the perpetual Republicans who automatically vote for the candidate with an "R" beside the name.

"Even though I'm a Democrat, I feel that my views on all issues are probably closer to a moderate Republican than [Ackerman's] are," Roberts says. "He is so far to the right, I think he's pretty well left a lot of his Republicans behind."

Ackerman disputes this notion. His views, he believes, reflect the district, which is largely Republican. "If I did not reflect the Republican view, I would have opposition in the primary," Ackerman says.

Johnson says the same: "I am an accurate reflection of the views."

With limited war chests, the Democrats are campaigning the old-fashioned way, not with glossy mailers and television commercials, but by knocking on doors. Ray says he's worn through a pair of shoes.

Ray and his team of grass-roots volunteers take their message out every day. He is focusing on several key differences, including that he favors abortion rights and supports an increased minimum wage. He also is a strong environmental advocate.

They know their opponents are not mounting big campaigns and that state Democratic Party leaders have quickly assessed their race and decided to instead filter money to districts where there's a better chance of winning.

They don't care.

"If I had done this totally for myself, I think I'd probably have thrown in the towel two months ago," Roberts says. "I am trying to make a difference here and show people that there is an alternative."


Senate Race Dollars

All figures cover period through Oct. 21 and include previous cash balances.

33rd District


Total contributions: $217,825.40

Total expenditures: $330,372.71

Ending cash balance: $28,472.29



Total contributions: $11,744.00

Total expenditures: $6,478.86

Ending cash balance: $4,935.87

35th District

ROSS JOHNSON, Republican

Total contributions: $591,039.32

Total expenditures: $692,949.58

Ending cash balance: $62,111.20


STEVE RAY, Democrat

Total contributions: $11,686.84

Total expenditures: $9,432.86

Ending cash balance: $3,021.86

Source: Orange County Registrar of Voters, Calif. Secretary of State

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