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Teachers Square Off in Assembly Race

Democrat and Saudi-born candidate Masry and Republican Strickland both teach history and government. But that is where similarities end.

September 20, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Since Ferial Amin Masry qualified as an Assembly write-in candidate in the March primary, reporters from across the nation have documented her efforts to become the first native-born Saudi elected to public office in the U.S.

ABC-TV anchor Peter Jennings profiled her as the "Person of the Week," "a candidate running for all the right reasons," as she attended the Democratic National Convention in July.

But that doesn't mean Masry has a realistic chance of knocking off Republican Audra Strickland for a seat the GOP has held in the conservative stronghold of Thousand Oaks for more than three decades.

Despite a compelling biography, Masry, 55, has received little financial support from the Democratic Party as she has tried to establish herself as a viable alternative to Strickland, 30, whose husband has represented the 37th Assembly District in Sacramento for six years but is leaving because of term limits.

"Ferial is a very intriguing candidate; she's getting a tremendous amount of national coverage," said Darry Sragow, a consultant who oversaw Assembly Democratic campaigns for eight years. "But that is a very, very tough district to win."

Republicans hold a 12-point lead in voter registration in the district, which includes Ojai, Santa Paula and Fillmore and eastern Ventura County and Chatsworth, Canoga Park and Castaic in Los Angeles County.

Then there's the issue of money. Strickland spent $550,000 to win a bitter Republican primary, and has raised about $200,000 since then -- $100,000 to pay off debt and $100,000 for the general election, according to her campaign. That compares with about $50,000 Masry said she has received.

"Audra's out-raising some of the current [Assembly] members, and we've got some big events coming up," said Joel Angeles, director of the Strickland campaign, before a $1,000-a-plate dinner with about 50 lobbyists in Sacramento last week. "We'll be fine, but I think it's a tall task for our opponent."

Strickland, who like Masry is a government and history teacher, said she appreciates the background of the Saudi-born, Egypt-educated immigrant who lived in Nigeria and England but moved to the U.S. in 1979 for greater freedom as a woman and for her children. "She has a very interesting story to tell," Strickland said.

"But I don't think the voters of our district could have a clearer choice."

At the campaign's first forum last week, before 200 retirees at Leisure Village in Camarillo, the candidates confirmed that analysis: On nearly every issue, Strickland was the conservative Republican and Masry the liberal Democrat.

Strickland, polished in her presentation, delivered her points unemotionally, but sometimes dodged a direct question; Masry, halting in her speech, was pointed and detailed in her responses and sometimes scathing about what she saw as illogical government policy.

The crowd seemed to prefer Masry, warming to her with cheers and hoots to such a degree that the moderator declared herself embarrassed by their partisanship.

On a volatile issue, Strickland said she favored the federal government's ban on drugs from Canada as a matter of consumer safety. Masry responded: "Canada is not a Third World country. We should really demand better treatment here."

What did the candidates think of gay marriage, one person wanted to know.

Opposed, Strickland criticized San Francisco officials for temporarily granting the licenses earlier this year. Masry favored same-sex civil unions "as long as we give the same equality, like a married couple."

Masry, a public school teacher in the San Fernando Valley, said granting taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school educations was "a Band-Aid.... You'll leave public schools for the kids who are not desired by private schools."

Strickland, a private teacher in Ventura, said she strongly supports the public school system. But she did not say whether she backs vouchers in concept, as husband Tony did in 2002, when a voucher initiative was soundly rejected by California voters for a second time. "[It] is very likely a dead issue," she said.

Strickland said she was "very opposed" to illegal immigrants, who are given "benefit after benefit after privilege ... drivers' licenses and free college tuition" by a Democrat-controlled Legislature. Masry found hypocrisy in Republicans' refusal to recognize illegal immigrants as an essential part of the U.S. economy. "The same people that are against illegal immigrants are the same people that employ them."

Strickland was for the death penalty; Masry generally not. Strickland was opposed to use of marijuana for medical purposes; Masry was not. Strickland was opposed to use of embryonic stem cells for scientific research; Masry was not. Strickland was "pro-life"; Masry "pro-choice."

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