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Far Ahead in Race, Republican Isn't Letting Up

Strickland continues tough fight, though Thomas lags in polls and fund-raising.

October 14, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Tony Strickland's Assembly seat is safer than ever for a Republican because of redistricting.

His campaign treasury so dwarfs that of his Democratic opponent, Moorpark financial advisor Bruce Thomas, that Strickland has given thousands of dollars to friends in tougher battles.

But Strickland, the Assembly's second-ranking Republican, said he is still running hard for a third and final term in the Legislature's lower house.

After two close races against Somis teacher Roz McGrath, Strickland said he's not leaving anything to chance as he faces Thomas, a little-known Democrat, in the competition for the 37th District seat.

The district includes much of Ventura County as well as Chatsworth and northwest Los Angeles County.

"I always campaign hard," said Strickland, a Moorpark resident, who at 32 is the youngest member of the Assembly. "No one said I had a chance to win the first race because I was too young. But I proved them wrong. And I'm going to win this one, too."

First he must get by Thomas, 54, a plain-spoken former Marine Corps officer.

Thomas thinks Strickland is vulnerable because many voters view him as too conservative. Thomas says Strickland is so busy climbing the ladder in Republican Party politics that he pays little attention to issues in his district.

Personal history also distinguishes them, the Democrat said. Strickland has never held a job outside of public service, joining the staff of a Republican legislator right out of college, Thomas said.

By contrast, Thomas served in the military, started two companies and raised a family before running for office, he said. He's hoping that voters will like his broad experience, giving him an edge despite a Republican 11-point advantage in voter registration.

But a GOP strategist disagreed, saying Thomas' best chance of beating the incumbent is if Democrats pump big money into his campaign.

So far, that has not happened, said Allan Hoffenblum, editor and publisher of "California Target Book," which tracks finances and handicaps election races.

Still, Democrats are hoping to gain a veto-proof majority in the Assembly and will have to knock off at least one incumbent to achieve that, Hoffenblum said. They may turn to Thomas because Gov. Gray Davis polled better four years ago in the district's new boundaries than his opponent, Republican Dan Lundgren, Hoffenblum said.

"The district has a strong Republican bias but it doesn't vote overwhelmingly Republican," the analyst said. "It could be on their short list of possibilities [of] where to go."

Strickland first ran for office when he was 27. With his party out of power, he has had few legislative victories during his two terms. He names a bill that created a special license plate to honor former President Reagan as one high point.

He's made his greatest mark, Strickland said, by consistently pushing the Democrat-controlled Legislature to rein in spending and cut taxes.

He said he is not afraid of a fight. He sued for, and eventually won, the release of government energy contracts last year after Davis refused to make them public.

"They showed Davis was locked into higher prices than what was available on the spot market. Now he is renegotiating those contracts. I'm proud of that," Strickland said. "A lot of my colleagues wouldn't have been willing to do that. But I thought it was the right thing to do."

Two years ago, Strickland was viewed as a rising star in line for the job of the Assembly's minority party leader. He was passed over, but now holds the No. 2 position of Republican Caucus chair.

The GOP's Hoffenblum said Sacramento views Strickland as ambitious, a politician who will continue to rise if he can find another elective office. Even if he wins in November, term limits will oust Strickland from the Assembly in two years.

Although Strickland opposes abortion in most cases and has voted against gun control laws, he tends to focus most on economic issues, Hoffenblum said.

"He's a likable guy. He's active and works with people. And he's forged good relationships," he said.

In his off hours, he's served as an unofficial advisor to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, campaign staff say. Strickland said he freely offers strategy -- and contributions -- to like-minded Republicans.

He dismissed Thomas' contention that such work distracts from attention to issues important to his constituents.

"I am proud of my political involvement. We should not shy away from helping people of quality get elected to public service," Strickland said.

During his two decades in the Marines, Thomas oversaw the creation of a software system that controls planes and weapons. He retired as a major in 1992 and helped found CRI, a defense communications company in Van Nuys. After a few years, he became a retirement advisor.

Running for political office has been difficult for Thomas, because he is basically a shy guy used to organizing things from the sidelines, he said.

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