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Condit Takes Reelection Bid to Constituents

Politics: Intern Chandra Levy's disappearance draws scant mention at the forum. The congressman's top opponent doesn't attend.

January 12, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

MERCED, Calif. — 'I'm Gary Condit. I'm from Ceres. I've represented the valley for over 30 years.'

With that, the beleaguered congressman faced a hometown crowd Friday for the first time since his name became a tabloid staple and his career spun into political infamy.

It was a gentle audience at a Chamber of Commerce political forum, which drew more than 150 guests, 13 television cameras and nine candidates seeking to replace the incumbent-all but his most serious Democratic opponent.

The name Chandra Levy was never spoken. Indeed, the whole matter of the missing intern went unmentioned throughout the 90-minute campaign forum, until practically the end.

Finally, Bill Conrad, a Modesto councilman and Republican candidate for Condit's seat, burst out: "Gentleman and ladies! I have a 15-year-old son and Gary Condit should not be in Congress. He's an embarrassment. What he has done this summer with his attitudes and the things that have happened, he's just like Clinton. He shouldn't be there He's the wrong man [in] the wrong place and this is about family values.'

Condit, far from Conrad at the end of a long table, gulped from a glass of water. He found a friendly face in the crowd and smiled, as scattered boos and hisses nearly drowned out Conrad.

"I think that's what you're going to run into in the valley," Condit's son and campaign manager, Chad, said afterward. "I think people are fair. They want to hear everyone and they're going to evaluate and judge for themselves.'

Condit, a 13-year veteran of Congress, was a shoo-in for reelection until Levy disappeared last spring. Now, abandoned by Democratic Party leaders and scrapping for campaign contributions, he is struggling as the March 5 primary approaches.

Relatives of the 24-year-old intern have said she and the 53-year-old Condit were having an affair. Condit, who is married, has refused to discuss details of their relationship, other than to say they were close. Police have said he is not a suspect in her disappearance.

In the last few months, Condit has given a series of media interviews, and last summer he sent a letter to his Central Valley constituents denying any involvement in Levy's disappearance.

But the event Friday marked the first time that Condit has stood before his Central Valley constituents in such a forum.

As it happened, the organizers allowed each candidate just a single question-Condit's was about education reform-under a format that treated all 10 candidates as equals, including two who do not live in the district and one who used his opening remarks to sing an a cappella version of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.'

The front-runner for the 18th Congressional District seat, Democratic state Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, begged off the event, citing a scheduling conflict. But he promised to attend a candidate's debate scheduled for next month.

That left Condit even more alone as the focus of Friday's candidate forum.

Wearing a blue shirt, burgundy tie and a suit that matched his steel-gray hair, Condit slipped into the Branding Iron steakhouse through a back door, arriving late and avoiding the media. He moved briskly through the banquet room, up and down the long rows of tables, shaking nearly every hand before sitting down.

The questions posed to the various candidates were screened by the Chamber of Commerce, so it was unclear who-if anyone-was interested in plumbing the depths of the Levy scandal.

Several in the audience professed to be sick of the matter.

"I don't think anybody here is looking for any more gossip or any more dirt than has already been slung," said Ed Anderson, 49, a commercial loan officer at the local Community Bank and who is undecided in the congressional race. "We just need to weigh all that stuff against the good that [Condit] has done for the district.'

Doug Fluetsch, 31, said afterward he was pleased that so many in the audience hooted down Conrad when he interjected the Levy matter into the forum.

"People are sick of hearing about it," said Fluetsch, who is weighing a vote for Condit or Republican state Sen. Dick Monteith of Modesto.

"The stuff he did with the lady and all that is not right," Fluetsch said. "But he has done a good job for the district.'

Under the structure of the candidates forum, Condit was given the same four minutes to speak as everyone else. As the incumbent, he spoke last.

Condit repeatedly cited the bipartisan approach that has been a hallmark of his time in Congress, as well as his years as a state lawmaker in Sacramento. He spoke of the Central Valley as California's perpetual underdog, overlooked and disrespected by the rest of the state. When he came to his minute-long closing remark, he sounded almost plaintive.

"I have been effective on your behalf," Condit said. "And I'm going to ask you: I've helped you. I'm asking you to help me.'

That completed the forum. And as the other candidates mixed and mingled with the crowd, Condit rose and slipped out a side door.

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