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Orange County | ORANGE COUNTY ELECTIONS

Candidates Take Hard-Fought Contest Into Negative Territory

February 24, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Newport Beach resident Tim Brown knows it must be election time again.

His mailbox has been stuffed with campaign fliers in an intensely negative Republican battle between candidates Cristi Cristich and Chuck DeVore for the 70th Assembly District, leaving voters like Brown shaking their heads.

"They disappoint me," said Brown, 51, the English department chairman at Riverside Community College. "They're spending more time attacking each other instead of offering important information of why you should vote for someone."

In a region known for battles, including deciding the future of the former El Toro Marine base, a dogfight has erupted over the March 2 Republican primary to replace Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine). Campbell, who cannot serve any more terms in the Assembly, is seeking election to the 35th Senate district.

Six Republicans have crowded into the race, but it is being waged most fiercely between the moderate Cristich, 42, a wealthy Newport Beach businesswoman, and the more conservative DeVore, 41, an Irvine aerospace executive.

Donald P. Wagner, president of the South Orange County Community College District board of trustees, is the only elected official among the candidates.

Others seeking the GOP's nod to advance to the November general election are Chonchol D. Gupta, 20, a UC Irvine mechanical engineering student; engineer Long K. Pham, 53, a member of Gov. Pete Wilson's Regulatory Reform Roundtable Task Force in 1995; and Marianne Zippi, a 59-year-old iconoclast who has complained about the "good-old boys" in politics.

Early in the race, Zippi was unsuccessfully challenged in court for complaining in her ballot statement that the Republican male Establishment was handpicking candidates.

Her language was allowed to remain.

"I can fight for the average citizen because I am not owned by the privileged ones," said Zippi in her ballot statement.

Democrat Carl Mariz and Libertarian Mark Baldwin are running unchallenged for their parties' nominations. But the GOP victor on March 2 is expected to prevail in the general election because the district's voter registration is predominately Republican.

The wealthy district comprises Orange County's central coast area, including Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and inland into Irvine and parts of Aliso Viejo, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest and Tustin.

Whites outnumber other races about 3 to 1, but the district includes a growing number of Asians, Middle Easterners and Latinos.

"The district is a very cosmopolitan area," said Gupta, a former intern for the Republican Party in Orange County who is running his campaign on a shoestring.

Gupta said he was prompted to run because of the state budget crisis that has resulted in higher tuition for UC students. Higher fees forced two friends to drop out of school, he said.

Cristich has said she will raise nearly $1 million for her campaign, and DeVore said he has raised about half that. Wagner has raised more than $102,000 and Zippi has raised about $91,000.

In a race driven by direct mail and commercials on local cable television outlets, campaign coffers are playing a vital role in candidates' ability to get out their message.

UCI political science professor Mark Petracca said a higher voter turnout of moderate-leaning Republicans would probably benefit Cristich, while a smaller turnout dominated by more conservative voters would probably benefit DeVore.

Cristich founded Cristek Interconnects Inc., a manufacturer of electronic connectors for the military, aerospace and biomedical markets.

She has been endorsed by the New Majority, the party's moderate wing; Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), the state Senate Republican leader; and California Education Secretary Richard Riordan.

DeVore has the backing of the local Republican establishment, including 60 local elected officials and the California Republican Assembly.

Campbell has not taken sides in the race.

So far, their campaigns have been about unleashing barbs and counter-barbs.

DeVore has characterized Cristich as a "renegade Republican" because she endorsed Bill Clinton for president in 1996 and because she "flip-flopped" on the El Toro airport issue, initially supporting it before opposing it.

Cristich has said DeVore is soft on illegal immigration and accused him of getting logistical support from Indian gaming interests, a claim he denies.

Among the campaign's big dust-ups was Cristich's use of selected phrases from a letter by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), which falsely implied he had endorsed her. Cristich apologized to Cox and said she has since recanted the statement in a mailer to 19,000 party members -- the same number mailed the contested letter.

Wagner, meanwhile, said he's focusing on a positive campaign, believing voters will tire of the squabbling.

"I'm the only one who has held office and set policy and overseen budgets," Wagner said. "They've never won. I just think now is not the time to send a beginner to Sacramento."

Wagner noted that Cristich and DeVore may have violated campaign spending laws. Cristich has lent her campaign at least $350,000 while Devore lent his campaign about $215,000.

Proposition 34, the state campaign finance law passed by voters in 2000, bars candidates from lending their campaigns more than $100,000.

DeVore and Cristich hope the Fair Political Practices Commission will relax the regulations this summer.

Pham did not return phone calls seeking information.

Brown, the Newport Beach voter, wishes the candidates would abandon the political sniping and focus on issues.

"The high cost of housing right now, and transportation, and also the disproportionate funding that schools are receiving are big issues that are not being addressed," Brown said.

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