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Veteran Assemblyman, Little-Known Judge Seek 38th District Nomination : 2 Democrats Vie for Chance to Take On Dornan

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Dave Carter rarely gets more than a befuddled nod and a polite smile from the voters he meets as he trudges door to door, selling his long-shot congressional campaign in Orange County. But the response was different when he stopped by one Garden Grove home recently.

“Hi, my name’s Dave Carter. I’m a judge, and I’m running for Congress the old-fashioned way against Bob Dornan,” he told Barbara Highbarker when she answered the doorbell.

“You’re not as silly as he is, are you?” Highbarker shot back skeptically.

Technically, Dornan, a Republican who has earned a reputation among House colleagues as the chamber’s most flamboyant and eccentric member, is not Carter’s immediate opponent. But Dornan’s fiery persona and ultraconservative brand of politics loom large over the 38th District Democratic primary contest between Carter and veteran Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), lending a rare bit of color to an otherwise bland round of congressional primary elections in California on June 3.

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Discourage Challengers

Indeed, gerrymandering of the state’s 45 congressional districts by Democratic map makers has made it all but impossible to unseat incumbents, thereby discouraging most of the serious challengers.

Statewide, none of California’s 27 Democratic congressmen is faced with any serious primary election challenge, and few need fear being toppled by Republicans in November. Similarly, while three of the 18 Republican congressmen are not seeking to return and Dornan’s reelection remains a question mark, the rest of the GOP contingent appears safe.

Although they must face each other first, both Robinson, a gruff but effective Sacramento insider, and Carter, a no-nonsense Superior Court judge with no political experience, have made it clear that their real target is Dornan, who has gained national attention after a well-publicized physical altercation with another congressman on the House floor and several controversial outbursts.

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Both Democrats Carter and Robinson are hoping that voters in the conservative area will be disillusioned by Dornan’s antics and will return the district to Democratic control after two years in GOP hands. Carter asserts that he can lend a fresh perspective to Orange County’s needs, while Robinson says his years of legislative know-how make him better suited to represent the district than an opponent who is a political novice.

Indeed, Carter is only beginning to learn the fine points of running for office. During one of his recent walks in a low-income neighborhood, Carter rang a doorbell and introduced himself as a judge, just as he had done with Highbarker. Before he could speak another word, two men in the house scampered out the back door.

In other districts, the few primary election races that have attracted attention can be linked to vacancies or to flukes. For example, an unusual Democratic tussle is taking place in Orange County’s staunchly Republican 40th District, where Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) seems firmly entrenched despite persistent criticism of his penchant for flying around the world at taxpayer expense.

Late last month, Democratic stalwarts discovered that the only candidate who met the March 7 filing deadline for the party’s primary in the 40th District was Art Hoffmann, a sympathizer of right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Bruce Sumner, the red-faced county chairman, then launched a write-in campaign against Hoffmann, even while acknowledging that chances of ultimately dislodging Badham are slim.

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Sumner argued that to let a LaRouche loyalist become the official Democratic standard-bearer by default would aggravate an already serious inferiority complex suffered by party members in the heavily Republican county.

“It would make them feel even more like they are nothing,” he said candidly in a recent interview.

Faces Challenges

Nonetheless, despite the Democrats’ problems, Badham cannot automatically chalk up his sixth straight election victory. He is being challenged in the GOP primary by management consultant and Young Republican leader Nathan Rosenberg, whose brother, Werner Erhard, founded the 1970s self-awareness group known as est. But Rosenberg’s campaign has angered Republican leaders, making it difficult for the political neophyte to raise funds or solicit help from seasoned strategists.

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Meanwhile, the trio of Republican dropouts--retiring Rep. Gene Chappie of Roseville and Reps. Ed Zschau of Los Altos and Bobbi Fiedler of Northridge, both of whom are seeking their party’s nomination for Democrat U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston’s seat--all represent districts that most political observers think are safely in GOP hands.

Although the empty seats have lured several Republicans and Democrats into those primary elections, Assemblymen Wally Herger (R-Rio Oso) in Chappie’s northern district and Ernie Konnyu (R-Saratoga) in Zschau’s Silicon Valley area are expected to walk away with both their primary and general elections. Indeed, both men are far better known than other contenders because their state legislative districts largely coincide with the areas’ congressional districts.

Name recognition also could be a major factor in the race to replace Fiedler, who represents the strongly Republican 21st District that meanders through southern Ventura County and parts of the San Fernando Valley as well as Santa Catalina Island.

Debut of Bob Hope’s Son

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Highlighting this contest is the political debut of Tony Hope, a veteran Washington lobbyist who is the adopted son of comedian Bob Hope. Simi Valley Mayor Elton Gallegly, backed strongly by Ventura County developers, is challenging Hope in a contest between two men who both vow to faithfully back President Reagan’s foreign and domestic policy agenda.

Early opinion polls showed popular GOP Assemblyman Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks to be the front-runner, but McClintock pulled out of the race, contending that the fund-raising power of Hope’s famous father would almost surely put Tony Hope on the road to Washington before the race was over.

Citing similar fears, Gallegly plans to raise a sizable $400,000 and chides Hope for moving back to Northridge from the nation’s capital just before announcing his candidacy.

“Mr. Hope hasn’t lived in California for the last 12 years,” Gallegly charged. “If we’re talking about credentials, I have a proven record of making a commitment to this district for a long time.”

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In his defense, Hope argues that he was raised in the San Fernando Valley and that he possesses a good insider’s knowledge of how to get things done in Washington. As his experience, he cites his years running the lobbying office of a major national accounting firm and serving on several federal panels, including the Grace Commission, appointed by President Reagan to study ways of streamlining the federal government.

Name Can Detract

While Hope acknowledged that the family fame is a factor in his campaign, he said it sometimes can detract from his political message.

“While it helps me open a door . . . I often can’t come up to people’s expectations,” the affable Hope explained in an interview. “It’s a mixed blessing. I don’t tell one-liners, and I can’t tap dance.”

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Private polls by the candidates indicate that neither has captured the imagination of Republican voters, but Gallegly did gain a slight edge last month when the California Republican Assembly, the largest political volunteer group in the state, formally backed him for the nomination.

To a large extent, the groundwork for the widespread inactivity in this year’s congressional contests was laid by the late Rep. Philip Burton of San Francisco, a top Democratic leader. Before his death in 1983, Burton engineered a revamping of district lines that turned several shaky seats into solid Democratic and Republican bastions, while ensuring the Democratic Party’s lopsided control of California’s congressional delegation for years to come.

Eliminated Competition

“Burton’s reapportionment plan essentially eliminated competitive districts,” lamented Harvey Hukari, a San Francisco political consultant who served as the Republican National Committee’s western regional representative from 1976 through 1985.

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The one exception to the plan was the 38th District in northern Orange and southern Los Angeles counties, which “was always the most marginal in the plan,” according to political consultant Michael Berman. Although Orange County has a reputation as a Republican stronghold, Democrats hold a narrow but dwindling edge among registered voters in the district, which is home to Disneyland as well as the bulk of the county’s burgeoning Indochinese refugee population.

In 1984, the district was the only one in California to change hands, as Dornan--himself a three-term lawmaker who left the House in 1982 after his Santa Monica-area seat was gerrymandered into Democratic hands--moved to Garden Grove and edged out incumbent Democrat Jerry Patterson. The race cost both candidates more than $1.7 million.

Now, reasoning that Dornan may have upended Patterson on the strength of President Reagan’s landslide reelection victory, Democratic strategists think they can recapture the district with the right candidate and enough money.

Able to Cite Record

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Sumner, the party chairman, began cultivating Carter to take on Dornan shortly after that 1984 election. The glib, affable jurist can overcome his lack of political experience and anonymity, Sumner believes--and, perhaps more importantly, can cite his record as a former homicide prosecutor and a decorated Vietnam veteran to withstand expected attacks from Dornan about Democrats being soft on crime and communism.

Although Democratic leaders were hoping to avoid a distracting and expensive primary election fight, Robinson, a six-term state assemblyman, jumped into the race late last year and immediately assumed the mantle of the front-runner.

Backed by the influential political organization controlled by Reps. Howard L. Berman and Henry A. Waxman, Robinson is an established political fixture in the district and can boast of his status as one of Sacramento’s craftiest and most influential legislators--the man who regularly shepherds bills of special interest to Orange County through the Assembly.

But Robinson also has made a lot of enemies in the district over the years, and even his supporters concede that he often seems arrogant and aloof.

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‘A Hell of a Job’

“The guy’s just not very well liked,” acknowledged former state Democratic chairman Dick O’Neill, who nevertheless is backing Robinson over Carter. “But the guy’s done a hell of a job for the county.”

One potential embarrassment for Robinson could arise if investigators reopen a lingering influence-peddling case involving Anaheim fireworks manufacturer W. Patrick Moriarty. An associate of Moriarty has identified Robinson as one of several public officials who were provided prostitutes by Moriarty. Robinson refuses to confirm or deny the allegation, but insists that his legislative integrity was never compromised by anyone and dismisses the scandal as “irrelevant” to the campaign.

Robinson and Carter, citing a need for party unity, have vowed to avoid attacking each other and to focus their campaigns on Dornan, who they criticize for ignoring local needs while championing a long list of foreign anti-communist causes. But they both acknowledge a need to concentrate attacks on Dornan’s job performance rather than his politics, which are extremely popular in the county.

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For now, Carter has launched an intense door-to-door campaign to sell his name to voters, while Robinson so far has kept busy with legislative duties and spent little time campaigning in the district. But, in typical candidate fashion, he exudes confidence, declaring: “I look at myself as the nominee already.”

Times staff writers Lanie Jones and Lynn O’Shaughnessy contributed to this story.


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