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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Seats Safe Despite Ethics Issues

GOP congressmen in three Southland districts are expected to win despite questions.

October 14, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Ethics scandals around the nation have rendered Republican members of Congress vulnerable and buoyed Democrats hoping to unseat them.

Except in Southern California.

Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to regain control of Congress, a prospect that political watchers say is realistic for the first time this decade.

But three Southern California Republicans with legal and ethical troubles of their own -- including being named among the "most corrupt members of Congress" by the public interest group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- are expected to coast to reelection in November.

The public-interest group is the same one that provided the FBI with e-mails it obtained of Rep. Mark Foley's correspondence with congressional pages.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) is accused of earmarking hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the clients of a lobbyist and close friend.

Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) is accused of using his position in Congress to help a business partner and campaign contributor gain access to a prime piece of public land and of sheltering millions of dollars in real estate investment gains from taxes.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) is accused of earmarking millions of taxpayer dollars for transportation improvements near real estate developments in which he has a financial interest.

"They're not in competitive races; it's as simple as that," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "There's no buzz around town about any of them."

Though Northern California has a pair of competitive races, most of the action will again be far from the nation's most populous state -- Ohio, Pennsylvania and the northeast, most notably. Because California has some of the most heavily gerrymandered electoral districts in the country, members hold almost insurmountable voter registration advantages of 15 to 20 percentage points.

"That these congressmen face no serious challenge despite the questions about their ethics highlights the problems with gerrymandered districts," said Ned Wigglesworth, a policy advocate for California Common Cause, which has unsuccessfully pushed to reform how districts are drawn in California. "Gerrymandered districts drain competition out of the electoral system and undermine the accountability which is necessary for a functioning, healthy democracy."

Even Lewis, who faces the most potential legal trouble as the target of an investigation by federal prosecutors, is on safe ground.

He is facing off against Louie Contreras, a candidate with no previous political experience who has raised less than $5,000. By contrast, Lewis, a 28-year House veteran who holds one of the most powerful positions in government as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, had $1.4 million in the bank as of June. Not that he is using it to run much of a race. Lewis has not opened a campaign office or even hired a campaign manager.

Calvert is being challenged by Louis Vandenberg, a University of California administrator and Iraq war opponent who has run against him twice before. Campaign finance reports as of June showed his campaign had a little more than $2,500 in cash, compared with more than $260,000 for Calvert.

Miller isn't even facing a challenger.

christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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