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Election Pits Dove and Hawk

Congresswoman who opposed Iraq action is challenged by a war backer who is the daughter of a late Contra leader.

August 31, 2004|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

A Democratic incumbent who gained national attention with her antiwar votes is being challenged in Alameda County's 9th Congressional District by a Republican who is a staunch supporter of the Iraq war and is the daughter of a Central American military icon.

Claudia Bermudez -- whose father led the right-wing Contras in a counterrevolution against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s -- faces incumbent Barbara Lee in a district long inhospitable to Republican candidates.

Voter registration in the 9th District, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, is 62% Democrat, 11% Republican and 19% undeclared.

A strong supporter of the Iraq war, Republican Bermudez has criticized Lee for her opposition to the conflict, calling the congresswoman a communist and "pro-Sandinista."

Political analysts say they were surprised that Bermudez, an Internet entrepreneur who lives in Alameda, chose to run in such a heavily Democratic district that was strongly pro-Sandinista during her late father's war days.

"She may be thinking of the future," said political analyst Larry Gerston, a San Jose State professor. "But I recommend she move. That may be her best political strategy."

Lee, who won her last congressional race with 82% of the vote, became the center of a national furor three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by casting the lone vote against granting President Bush the authority to use force against those deemed behind the attacks.

She said she had no comment on what Bermudez had said about her.

"I'm very focused on winning the election, and cannot be deterred by what other people say and how they campaign," the Oakland congresswoman said. "I am who I am, and I think my voting record shows who I am."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Lee has repeatedly opposed legislation authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq and funding for warfare. She said diplomatic efforts should have been used to disarm Iraq.

"My district is a very enlightened district and stays on top of domestic policy as well as foreign policy, and understands when our country is going in the wrong direction," said Lee, 58, who first won her seat in 1998 when it was vacated by her mentor, Ronald V. Dellums.

In supporting the war, Bermudez draws parallels between the struggle of the Iraqi people against the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein and the Contras against the Sandinistas.

Bermudez, 50, is a political neophyte who prepared for her congressional bid by attending a Republican-sponsored campaign school to learn some of the intricacies of running for office.

She is secretary of the San Francisco County chapter of the Hispanic Republican Assembly and president of Alameda Republican Women.

Bermudez -- who has raised about $140,000, including loans she made to her campaign -- said she was inspired to become a candidate after volunteering in Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for governor.

She was born in Nicaragua, but her parents divorced when she was a toddler. As a child she spent time in her native country and San Francisco, where her mother moved. She graduated from high school in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.

Her father, Enrique Bermudez -- popularly known by his military academy designation of "el Tres Ochenta," or 380 -- was the chief of the Contra rebels. In 1991, he was shot to death in a parking lot in Managua.

Six months later, his eldest child, then an office manager in San Francisco, returned to Nicaragua for the first time in 20 years.

Since then, she has frequently traveled to the Central American nation to check on the investigation into her father's slaying and to campaign for two presidents, including Nicaragua's current leader, Enrique Bolanos.

Bermudez is active in a Nicaraguan organization created to help former Contras and their families, donating medical equipment, computers and money.

"She's Claudia Enriqueta Bermudez, daughter of el Tres Ochenta," said Leonardo Zeledon, 56, a former Contra commander who lives in Managua. "She has never forgotten her people."

Bermudez has invoked her father during the congressional campaign, posting pictures on her website showing him shaking hands with President Reagan.

She credits her political activism to her father. "My father taught me a lot about competition and wars," she said. "He taught me how to be fearless, and that I should never underestimate my enemy."

Bay Area activist Garrett Brown, who lived in Nicaragua from 1984 to 1988, said: "I don't think it's fair to visit the sins of the father on the daughter, but she does seem to be wrapping his cloak around her.

"His operations out of Honduras were responsible for some of the most bloody massacres of the early years of the Contra war," Brown said.

The candidate dismissed the accusations against her father as the unfounded complaints of local Marxists who were active in pro-Sandinista demonstrations during the 1980s.

Jim Hartman, chairman of the Alameda County Republican Party, said Bermudez is a "very energetic, very dynamic person, and is unafraid to contest Barbara Lee in an aggressive way."

"I think it's a strongly uphill race for her," he said, "but I believe she can win."

Not a chance, said San Jose State's Gerston. Lee "is extraordinarily independent and not afraid to say what's on her mind" with a constituency that gives her great political latitude to follow her beliefs, he said.

Unlike three years ago, when her antiwar stance appeared to be a liability, he said, events in Iraq have cast Lee -- in the eyes of many -- as a person "who can say, 'I've been there all along.' "

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