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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Tight Contests, Plus a Surprise

In Riverside and San Bernardino counties, two supervisor races are close. The one that isn't appears to be an upset by a challenger.

March 03, 2004|Seema Mehta and Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writers

In an election dampened by rain and poor voter turnout, two hotly contested races for supervisor in Riverside and San Bernardino counties remained undecided late Tuesday while a third appeared to be an upset.

In Riverside County, Temecula Councilman Jeff Stone had a surprisingly strong lead over incumbent county Supervisor Jim Venable in the race for the county's 3rd District. Another incumbent supervisor in Riverside, Bob Buster of District 1, may be forced into a runoff.

In the race to replace former San Bernardino County Supervisor Gerald "Jerry" Eaves, who was forced to step down in January after pleading guilty to government corruption, Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto) and Fontana City Councilwoman Josie Gonzales appeared to be leading a large pack of candidates in early returns for the 5th District race.

The votes trickled in during a dreary, cloud-covered election day that drew less than 50% of registered voters in the two Inland Empire counties.

"It could be a record low," said Mischelle Townsend, registrar of voters in Riverside County. "It's difficult to look in a crystal ball and speculate why people may be staying home.... It could be voter fatigue, in part."

For some Inland Empire voters, March 2 was the fourth election day in six months.

In Riverside County, voters appeared to be favoring Buster for reelection, with Linda Soubirous trailing in second and, as a distant third, Kevin Pape, a former Lake Elsinore councilman who lacked strong financial backing. The 1st District includes most of Riverside, Lake Elsinore and the unincorporated communities of Lake Mathews, Mead Valley, Woodcrest and Wildomar.

Buster campaigned on his efforts to regulate development, transform the former March Air Reserve Base into a business center and bring a medical school to UC Riverside. He was endorsed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., the county sheriff and district attorney. But Buster faced strong opposition from public safety unions, including the Riverside Sheriff's Assn., which contributed more than $165,000 to the Soubirous campaign, saying Buster had not worked to guarantee the safety of residents.

Soubirous said Buster had undercut public safety, done a poor job of planning for traffic and development, and been an ineffective leader. She remained optimistic Tuesday night because if Buster receives less than 50% of the vote, the two will have a runoff in November.

"I think we're doing well, and I think we're going to able to keep him to under 50%," she said. "He had tons of development money and that has given him an advantage to be able to smear me, basically."

The 3rd District race turned into a battle between old and new Riverside County. The district, which includes Hemet and Sun Valley, was recently expanded to include the newer southwestern county cities of Murrieta and Temecula. Venable, who has lived in Hemet since birth, was being trounced by Stone late Tuesday evening -- by more than 15% with nearly 95% of the votes counted.

Venable originally planned to retire after two terms, and said he ran for a third because of the state fiscal crisis and because he wanted to see the completion of a longtime goal: four road-widening projects in his district. If he loses the election, Venable said, he and his wife plan to hit the road with their two schnauzers.

On Tuesday night, he declined to comment until all the votes were tallied. "We'll find out then, we'll see," Venable said.

Stone said Venable had rubber-stamped disastrous development projects, and that existing residents' concerns about traffic and quality of life ought to have been given greater weight. He was watching election returns during a gathering at his sister's house, where loud cheers filled the air.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we're going to take this," he said. "I have been walking the precincts since October, and I've listened to the citizens and their concerns about their quality of life.... I appreciate Venable's leadership over the past eight years, [but] I think the citizens were ready for change."

In San Bernardino County, one of the fiercest races was the campaign to replace Eaves, who pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge for his role in a corruption scandal.

Ten candidates sought to represent the district, which includes Colton, Rialto, Fontana and most of San Bernardino. If no one wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two finishers will have a November runoff.

Because of Eaves' conviction, most of the candidates emphasized their ethics. Many promised to return respect and honesty to the Board of Supervisors.

Among leaders in the race are Longville; Gonzales; Martin Valdez, Eaves' former chief of staff; and Danny Tillman, a board member for the San Bernardino City Unified School District.

In early returns, Longville and Gonzales were ahead of the pack, setting the stage for what could be a runoff in November.

Gonzales and Longville have already exchanged barbs in the primary. Gonzales has accused Longville of being too closely allied with Eaves, and Longville has attacked Gonzales for funding her campaign primarily with a large personal loan.

Voter turnout was dismal throughout the region. A little more than one-third of the 657,000 registered voters in Riverside County voted Tuesday, compared with 54.4% for the 2000 presidential primary. Of the 150,000 absentee ballots mailed to voters in Riverside County, only half were returned. The typical return rate is 80%.

In San Bernardino County, turnout was expected to be about 40%, down from 50% in the 2000 presidential primary.

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