Three days before the deadline for filing candidacy papers, Fern Rudin still was just an interested bystander. But her old friend Don Katz, a Ventura County Democratic Party official, was at the door, again urging her to run for Congress against Elton Gallegly.
This time she was compelled to go forward. She was still in tears from watching an installment of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on oppressed Afghan women. And since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she had felt an urgent need to do something that would make a difference.
So the 49-year-old Rudin, a first-time candidate, is optimistically running against a former Simi Valley mayor who is seeking his ninth term in Congress with a $1-million campaign treasury at his disposal. Libertarian Gary Harber also is vying for the office.
"The time is right," Rudin said. "When things are going well and people's senses are not piqued to a critical point, the status quo is OK. But that's not the time now -- not following the presidential election of 2000, not following 9/11."
Gallegly is confident that the 639,000 people in his newly reconstituted 24th Congressional District would benefit from the experience of a seasoned lawmaker. He reels off a list of improvements that he says stem from his efforts in Congress: a new interchange at Rice Avenue and the Ventura Freeway, a widened Highway 23, new planes for the Air National Guard, funds for local Boys & Girls Club branches, dredging at Ventura Harbor and high-tech communications equipment for county police agencies.
"We've had great success," he said. "When you've got a doggone solid record, people know where you are."
While Gallegly has not made many national headlines besides those generated by his tough stand against illegal immigration, he says his lengthy stay in Congress has afforded him "the opportunity to gain the respect of more folks."
"The [majority] whip will check with me," Gallegly said. "They don't take my vote for granted."
Gallegly's critics, though, question his effectiveness on the national stage.
"He's not a very viable congressman," said Katz, a member of the county's Democratic Central Committee. "You could see it on TV during the Clinton [impeachment] hearings; when he asked a question, [House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry] Hyde ignored him like he wasn't there."
Democratic officials acknowledge that a Rudin victory over Gallegly would be a huge upset.
In 2000, Gallegly handily beat Michael Case, a Ventura attorney who was widely seen as the strongest challenger Gallegly had faced since taking office. A founder of the city's largest law firm, Case poured more than $725,000 in donations and his own funds into his effort.
By contrast, Rudin has a treasury that is virtually empty, not meeting the $5,000 threshold required for reporting to the Federal Elections Commission. Running her campaign from a kitchen table piled high with papers, she admitted that she was one of the only local Democrats willing to face the longtime incumbent on turf made solidly Republican by redistricting.
In the newly drawn 24th District, Gallegly picks up Thousand Oaks and inland Santa Barbara County, giving up Oxnard, Carpinteria and part of Ventura. The changes give Gallegly a majority Republican base -- 46% GOP to 35% Democratic -- for the first time in a decade. Previously, his district was split 40% to 39%, with Democrats holding the edge.
"No one was going to run against Elton," Rudin said. "It was just something that had to be done."
She contends that Gallegly slights his constituents, spending insufficient time at events in the district. She also faults him for what she and other Democrats have seen as a reluctance to debate.
Gallegly scoffs at the accusations. He said he returns to the district almost every weekend and has engaged in past debates, although, he acknowledged, they have not been a high priority. In any event, his record is more important than his rhetorical ability, he said.
Rudin, a self-employed public relations consultant, has not held or run for office before. However, she has been politically active, coordinating the Clinton presidential campaign in eastern Ventura County in 1992 and 1996.
She advocates a universal health-care system, easier access to prescription drugs, more government emphasis on renewable energy resources and a restructuring of schools with an eye on how children actually learn.
Active in a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State, she said she supports the deletion of "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.
"We need to be a nation that's inclusive, not exclusive," she said. "Pushing a deity on people is not how we can be inclusive."
Gallegly was confident that Rudin's conviction wouldn't fly with voters. "Does she need some money to help get her message out?" he said jokingly, implying fewer people would vote for her if they knew her stance on the pledge.