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All in the Family for GOP

Primary voters choose Audra Strickland as their nominee for the Assembly seat now held by her husband.

March 04, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

The morning after Ventura County Republicans decided they wanted two more years of a Strickland in the state Assembly, private school teacher Audra Strickland said her primary election victory would likely mean more of the same conservative politics her termed-out husband, Tony, brought to the job.

"Tony and I share an awful lot in terms of our principles and where we stand on issues," Audra Strickland, 29, said of her 34-year-old spouse, a political partner since they married at the Richard Nixon Library in 1998.

"We've always been a team," Tony added.

That team worked well enough Tuesday to win one of the most competitive and costly primary races in the state, edging underfunded moderate Jeff Gorell and ultra-conservative Mike Robinson.

In the general election, Audra Strickland will face Democrat Ferial Masry, a 55-year-old high school teacher from Newbury Park who qualified as a write-in candidate Tuesday for the Nov. 2 ballot. "It's a miracle," Masry said.

The 37th Assembly District is heavily Republican. It includes Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Santa Paula, Fillmore, Ojai and parts of Simi Valley, Chatsworth and the Santa Clarita Valley.

"I think what happened in the 37th was that Robinson went too far to the right and Gorell was insufficiently funded, so Audra went right up the center," said GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum. "What's interesting is that if Gorell had had a couple hundred thousand [dollars] more he probably could have won this thing. Moderate Republicans always rant about the right wing, but they didn't come through for a good moderate candidate."

As it was, the 28-year-old Robinson, a trust-fund millionaire and investor, spent more than $600,000 of his own money, Strickland spent about $550,000 and Gorell, 33, a Ventura County deputy district attorney, collected about $275,000.

Conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock endorsed both Robinson, his former aide, and Strickland, the wife of a former aide. Gorell, who described himself as a "Schwarzenegger candidate," was endorsed by former Gov. Pete Wilson and other moderates closely aligned with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gorell said he lost partly because he could not afford to send fliers to absentee voters when county officials mailed out those ballots Feb. 3.

"Audra and Mike sent out absentee ballots with their information," Gorell said. "But we just couldn't afford it. We won on election day, but we lost in absentee balloting."

In Ventura County, where nearly nine out of every 10 votes in the 37th District were cast, Strickland won 37% of the absentee vote, while Robinson received 33% and Gorell 27%. Gorell made up ground election night, but still lost in Ventura County with 33% to 35% for Strickland. Gorell lost badly to Strickland and Robinson in Los Angeles County, where he spent little money.

Overall, Strickland won 36% of the vote to Gorell's 32% and Robinson's 30%. A fourth GOP candidate, business manager Eric McClendon, had 2%.

Robinson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"This puts Audra in a strong position, because she's not beholden to either one of the factions of the Republican Party that are continually feuding within that district," Hoffenblum said. "Audra's a mainline conservative Republican without being shrill."

Strickland certainly benefited because she was married to the incumbent, Hoffenblum said. "But it took more than that. Enough money was spent by election day that voters knew who the candidates were."

Strickland and Robinson used a lot of that money in nasty, tit-for-tat attacks in television commercials and biting mailers.

Strickland said she was convinced that she won not because of ads that depicted Robinson as a candidate with no real-life experience, but because of a shoe-leather campaign over many months that took her to the doorsteps and living rooms of thousands of voters.

"Face-to-face campaigning can still make a difference," she said.

If elected, Strickland said she would work to pass workers' compensation reform, cut taxes and create jobs. A top priority would be to eliminate duplicative state commissions, a legislative initiative being pushed by McClintock and led by her husband in the Assembly.

"The size of state government has grown 37% since 1998," she said.

She won't support a new bill to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, despite a pledge from Schwarzenegger to back such a bill once it is rewritten to address his concerns.

Tony Strickland said he was going to pursue goals similar to his wife's for the rest of the year.

"With Audra, they get someone dedicated to conservative principles, and with the experience to be very effective from Day 1," he said. Audra Strickland flew to Sacramento on Wednesday evening and was scheduled to meet with Schwarzenegger. "I think she's going to have a great relationship with the governor," Tony Strickland said.

Despite her youth, Audra Strickland has worked for three Assembly members.

"I was involved in politics long before I met Tony, and wanted to run myself; I've been active in Republican politics since I was 18 years old," she said.

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