When cowboy lawman Michael D. Bradbury decided to hang up his spurs as Ventura County district attorney, prosecutors assumed the office would pass to his second-in-command, Greg Totten.
But a brash trial lawyer, Ron Bamieh, upset those notions last year when he announced plans to run for Bradbury's post--forcing the first contested election for district attorney since 1978.
Now, with nine days left in the campaign, the two candidates remain locked in the costliest and most divisive local race this election season.
It is a race between a seasoned administrator who has run the office in Bradbury's absence and a dynamic prosecutor eager to bring change.
Totten, 47, wants to improve upon his boss's tough-on-crime legacy by hiring more minorities, expanding training and seeking grants for new programs.
Bamieh, 36, wants to overhaul middle management, put prosecutors in the community and devote greater resources to trying misdemeanor crimes that affect the quality of life for county residents.
While the two candidates share similar views on most law-and-order issues--both loathe plea bargains and support the three-strikes law and the death penalty--they are polar opposites in terms of style, experience and personality.
Totten, who was raised on the edge of the California desert, joined the prosecutor's office 20 years ago as a trial deputy and rose through the ranks to become chief assistant district attorney. He is soft-spoken, serious and uses words like "honor" and "integrity" in describing his view of an ideal district attorney.
Bamieh is loud, cocky and exudes charisma. The son of a deep-pocketed and politically well-connected San Mateo businessman, he joined the Ventura County district attorney's office nine years ago and quickly climbed to the position of senior deputy district attorney, trying homicide and serious felony cases.
Since neither one is a household name, the two men have been campaigning almost daily since Jan. 1. They have participated in two dozen political forums and spent more than $1 million on signs, mailers, campaign strategists and radio and television ads.
The largest donations have come from Bamieh's father, who has dumped $868,000 into his son's campaign--$107,000 in the past week alone.
Bamieh says those resources have made it possible for him to challenge Totten, who is supported by the county's law enforcement establishment. Totten contends his opponent is trying to buy the election.
As the clock ticks down, tensions are running high. But both men say it is because there is so much at stake.
To hear JoAnn Totten tell it, her son always wanted to be a lawyer. "From the time he was a boy," she said in between answering phones at campaign headquarters.
It is here, in a cramped office across the street from the Ventura courthouse, that Totten has launched his bid for district attorney.
It's a hive of activity with volunteers folding mailers and campaign strategists hustling to set up events. Huge precinct maps line the walls--a reminder of the ground Totten must cover before the March 5 primary.
But he has covered plenty of ground just to get this far.
The son of an aerospace engineer, he grew up in Riverside County, spent a short time in Hawaii and his last two years of high school in the Mojave Desert, where his father worked at the China Lake Naval Weapons Station.
After junior college, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics from San Francisco State University and a law degree from Pepperdine University.
In 1982, he joined the Ventura County district attorney's office and spent the next decade handling everything from petty thefts to a death-penalty murder case.
In 1993, he moved to Sacramento to become the executive director of the California District Attorney's Assn., drafting legislation and lobbying on behalf of 2,500 prosecutors statewide.
Chosen as No. 2 in Command in '98
After three years in the state capital, Totten returned to the district attorney's office, this time as the chief deputy in charge of the child support division. In 1998, Bradbury picked him to serve as his second-in-command.
Since then, Totten has overseen the day-to-day operations of a department with 600 employees and a $40-million budget. He has also chaired the committee that makes recommendations to Bradbury on when to seek the death penalty.
"He is an extraordinarily fine lawyer," said Bradbury, who is retiring after six consecutive terms. "In almost 20 years, he has handled every kind of case imaginable. And his judgment is impeccable."
Those credentials have helped Totten win close to 200 local endorsements, including a wide cross-section of elected officials, minority community leaders and labor and police unions.
"We may differ on other issues or candidates, but on this one we are together," said Hank Lacayo, chairman of the Ventura County Democratic Central Committee and president of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, the county's largest Latino advocacy organization.