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Senate Seat Is a Must-Win for Both Parties

A loss in Central Valley district would further erode GOP influence; Democrats need victory to preserve big margin.

October 14, 2002|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

MODESTO -- Even in what is shaping up as the only heavily contested race for a state Senate seat this year, the arrival of Clint Eastwood in a presidential-like convoy of shiny black SUVs was unexpected here -- maybe doubly so.

It's not every day that a Hollywood icon steps out of a mini-motorcade and into the local movie house for a screening of his latest film, "Bloodwork." What's more, on this recent Sunday evening, Republican Eastwood was in town to raise money and campaign for Rusty Areias, the Democratic nominee in the 12th District Senate race.

Areias, 52, who is opposed by Republican businessman Jeff Denham, 35, was pumped at harnessing the star power and fund-raising draw of Eastwood, a longtime friend, to the California 99 community whose votes are crucial to the Nov. 5 election.

He suggested that Eastwood's role in Modesto dramatized the importance Democrats put on winning the vacant seat formerly occupied by termed-out Republican Dick Monteith.

For Democrats, a win in this nominally Democratic but philosophically conservative region once represented by Rep. Gary Condit (D-Ceres) is a must to keep their lopsided 26-14 Senate majority. Democrats are one short of a two-thirds super-majority required to enact the state budget or raise taxes without a GOP vote.

Retaining the seat in the GOP lineup is also crucial to the Republicans, whose numbers in the Senate have shrunk to so few in the last decade that they exercise little power. Loss of the seat would push them further to the sidelines.

As a result of redistricting maps drawn by the Legislature last year, the 12th District is the only Senate seat that is competitive. In a deal agreed to by majority Democrats and minority Republicans, a status quo redistricting plan was adopted that is intended to freeze the current alignment for the next decade.

Originally drawn as a Democratic-tilting district, the 12th now has Democrats outnumbering Republicans 48% to 38%, while voters of no party total 9%. The district includes all of Merced County, much of Stanislaus County and a piece of Madera County. It also stretches west over the coastal mountains to include all of San Benito County and part of Monterey County.

Both parties are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign and expect to spend millions before election day -- more than a combined $6 million for a seat that pays $99,000 a year plus a tax-free $120 daily living allowance when the Legislature is in session.

"We think we are the underdog. The Democrats have much more money, and they are going to outspend Jeff significantly," said Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.

Difference in Financing

Brulte noted that under the Proposition 34 campaign finance reform initiative, Denham had agreed to voluntarily limit his spending but Areias had not. Denham will be listed in official voter materials as having restricted his expenditures, an action that presumably would appeal to voters.

The telegenic Denham, a married father of two young children who failed in a race for the Assembly two years ago, owns a factory in Salinas that produces plastic containers for agriculture. He also operates a plastics recycling business. He is a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Areias served in the Assembly for nine years starting in 1983. He was defeated for state controller in 1994 and lost his first race for the Senate in 1996. Gov. Gray Davis appointed him chairman of the Coastal Commission and later made him the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, a post he resigned from in June.

As an assemblyman from a rural district where gun control was unpopular, Areias cast the decisive vote in 1989 to pass the country's first assault gun control law. He also unsuccessfully challenged the leadership of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a fellow Democrat, as a member of the maverick "Gang of Five."

On issues, Denham said he opposes a recently signed bill that will authorize the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose a mediated settlement when negotiations fail between growers and unionized farm workers. "It sets precedents that we don't require of any other industry," he said.

Denham also said he does not favor a new law that will allow workers to take paid leave to attend to family matters. He said some provisions were so vague that they invited costly legal challenges.

Areias, whose family operated a dairy for 85 years until it went bankrupt several years ago, sidestepped a direct answer on whether he favors the Democratic-backed mediated settlement law, saying, "We are going to have to live with it." He added, however, that "from a policy standpoint, I think it is reasonable."

As election day draws closer, the candidates' differences have turned nasty.

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