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He's in the Race; He's Just Not Here

Tom Umberg, seeking his old Assembly seat, has been called to Army Reserve duty for terrorism prosecutions.

August 05, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

You've heard of the absentee voter? Tom Umberg will have to be the absentee candidate.

Umberg is the Democratic nominee for assemblyman from Santa Ana, who held the same seat from 1990 to 1994, interspersed with stints in the Army Reserve. Now the Pentagon has ordered him to report to the office of military commissions, the unit prosecuting suspected terrorists in custody at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

His new job starts Sunday.

In 1990, Umberg was sworn in to his Assembly seat and immediately left for a two-week tour of Army duty. The same day, his wife, Robin, who, like him, is a colonel in the Army Reserve, was activated and spent the next seven months at a military hospital in Colorado nursing soldiers wounded in the Persian Gulf War.

This time, Umberg, a managing partner at the Newport Beach law firm of Morrison & Foerster, will leave behind Robin, their 15-year-old son and a campaign in which others will now walk precincts, address forums and appeal for campaign funds on his behalf. The couple also have two children in college.

"I'm lucky I'm blessed with the support of family and friends," Umberg said Wednesday. "I don't think voters will hold it against me."

Umberg, an assistant U.S. attorney before his first stint in Sacramento, declined to give specifics about his new assignment or how long he would be gone. Sources familiar with the deployment said it would last through the Nov. 2 election. Trials of the suspects are being held at the Guantanamo base.

Surviving as an absentee candidate will be easier because Umberg previously represented the district and is known to many voters, said campaign manager Benny Enriquez. Also, Democratic voters in the 69th Assembly District, centered in Santa Ana, have a 19-percentage-point registration advantage over Republicans.

Umberg's GOP rival, Santa Ana businessman Otto Bade, said he'll miss Umberg on the campaign trail. "When you're called to duty, you've got to go," said Bade, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War.

A former Army prosecutor, Umberg was an unsuccessful candidate for state attorney general in 1994. He managed President Clinton's reelection campaign in California in 1996 and served from 1997 to 2000 as an assistant drug czar for the Clinton administration.

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