The Democrats did not field a candidate against GOP incumbent Carlos J. Moorhead in the 22nd Congressional District two years ago. Even a last-minute write-in campaign to get a Democrat on the ballot flopped in the Republican safety zone, which includes Glendale and parts of Burbank and the San Gabriel Valley.
But that was the year of President Reagan's landslide, Democrats say, and anyone could see that Moorhead had an unshakable grip on the President's coattails. The odds are still heavily against them this year, Democrats concede, but at least they are sure to have an enthusiastic standard-bearer on the ballot, they say.
The Rev. John G. Simmons, a Lutheran minister from Burbank and former administrator of the bankrupt Lake View Medical Center, qualified last week to run in the Democratic primary on June 3. He has no opposition in the primary and neither does Moorhead, who is seeking his eighth term. The filing deadline was Friday. In the district, 56% of voters are registered as Republicans and 35% as Democrats.
"I'm not unrealistic," Simmons, 68, said about his chances of winning. "But that doesn't mean things can't be turned around. I think there is a lot of disagreement (with Moorhead) by moderate and liberal Republicans in the district on issues of conservation, health and safety, and peace. I think I can at least prick a lot of consciences in the course of the campaign."
A Minnesota protege of Hubert H. Humphrey, Simmons speaks with the kind of exuberance and optimism that was a trademark of the late vice president and senator. Even the final closing last week of the hospital that Simmons helped establish had its bright spot, he said, explaining: "Defeat teaches you a lot more than victory."
Simmons' only previous bid for public office was in 1949, when he lost a race for mayor of Minneapolis. He moved to California three years later and has long been active in statewide and San Fernando Valley Democratic activities and liberal causes, most recently in the nuclear freeze movement.
In 1962, his home in North Hollywood and that of a Unitarian minister in Canoga Park were badly damaged by bombs while the two were speaking before a Jewish group about what the ministers described as the dangers of radical right-wing political groups. No arrests were ever made, but Simmons says he is certain that he was a target of one of the groups he was denouncing.
The troubles at Lake View Medical Center also put Simmons at the center of controversy. He helped to found it in 1960, under the name of Pacoima Memorial Hospital, after a mid-air plane collision that killed eight people tragically demonstrated the need for more medical facilities in the area. For many years he was the hospital's administrator, and, for the last two years, was head of its foundation board.
The hospital was destroyed in the 1971 earthquake. Weighed down with debt from rebuilding and facing increasing competition from other hospitals, in 1984 it filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code. But that effort failed and the 145-bed facility closed last week.
Some hospital employees say the hospital suffered from poor administration and community relations. But Simmons says the hospital died because most of its patients were low-income people hurt by cuts in federally subsidized health programs and because rules that govern Medicare reimbursement were tightened.
Record Called 'Regressive'
He points a finger at Moorhead for supporting many of the Reagan Administration proposals to cut domestic spending. He calls Moorhead's record "regressive, not even reactionary" and describes his own philosophy as "progressive."
"I totally disagree with his record," he said of Moorhead. "He's a nice fellow, but when you've said that, you've said it all."
Moorhead voted with the Administration on 67 of 95 House votes in 1984, according to the Congressional Quarterly. He continues to be a strong backer of cutting the overall federal budget while increasing defense spending.
Meanwhile, Moorhead and his staff hardly seemed worried about a challenge from Simmons. Moorhead, a Glendale resident, won 85% of the vote against a Libertarian opponent in 1984. In 1982, with a Democrat in the race, he garnered 73% of the vote.
Moorhead, who is 63 and titular dean of the 18-member GOP California caucus in Congress, is known as a very low-key legislator who shuns the spotlight and spends a lot of time in his committee assignments on technical issues of copyrights and hydroelectric power. Instead of grabbing headlines, he aides say, he prides himself on service to constituents.
"Carlos is very effective in dealing with people in the bureaucracy, not only because this is a Republican Administration, but because he doesn't treat people shabbily and doesn't make any enemies," said aide David Joergenson.
Miles Clark, president of the Democratic Club of Pasadena Foothills and a major force in Simmons' campaign, agreed that Moorhead has few enemies--but he says it's for another reason.
"Moorhead has done so little, there is very little to criticize him about," Clark said. "I think his very low profile has been a big advantage. He's never made any mistakes because he's never done anything."
When asked whether he might criticize Simmons over the propriety of a minister running for public office, Moorhead, in a telephone interview from Washington, said: "I'm not going to make an issue over anything like that. I try not to make it a negative campaign. I noted that he is a liberal Democrat and there are undoubtedly some differences in philosophy between us. But I don't run against anybody. I run on my own record."
On the issue of involvement of the clergy in politics, Simmons said there is a difference between his candidacy and the alliance of some conservative Christian groups with the Republicans.
"I'm not running as a clergyman of any denomination and I don't expect anybody to listen to me because I am one," he said. "I'm not saying that God spoke to me and told me to run. I don't think that is a correct use of religion or of God. If I can't convince someone of my case otherwise, then they shouldn't vote for me then."
Simmons said he has $5,000 of what he hopes will eventually be a $100,000 campaign fund. Moorhead said he has a campaign chest of $300,000 and expects to spend $100,000 to $150,000 on the race.
The two other candidates in the 22nd Congressional District are Jona Joy Bergland, a Libertarian from Glendale, and Joel Lorimer, a Los Angeles resident running for the Peace and Freedom Party. Neither could be reached for interviews this week.