Robinson, Carter Vie for Right to Oppose Dornan in 38th : Former Judge, Facing Long Odds, Takes Campaign Direct to Voters

Times Political Writer

For Superior Court Judge David O. Carter, Feb. 4 was the day his life changed.

Wrapping up a murder case in his Orange County courtroom, the judge slipped off his black robe, met briefly with reporters and then drove to a shopping center in Garden Grove.

There, suit coat slung over one shoulder, Carter paced the sidewalk, buttonholing shoppers and asking them to sign his nominating papers for Congress.


In just one day, Carter the judge--used to running a courtroom “where your decisions aren’t questioned"--had become Carter the candidate, walking precincts, raising money and trying to woo the voters of the 38th Congressional District.

The transition has been “a humbling experience,” said Carter, 42, a first-time congressional candidate in the June 3 Democratic primary against Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove). But it is also necessary, Carter added, if voters are to care about a candidate instead of being deluged with computer-targeted mail in yet another impersonal political campaign.

If he is successful in the June 3 primary, Carter will face incumbent Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) in the November general election.

Carter, of course, has used direct mail of his own, so far a mix of postcards and red, white and blue brochures sent to 75,000 Democratic households. But he prefers “people-to-people” contact as he campaigns in a district that runs from Santa Ana to Garden Grove to the city of Cerritos, just over the Los Angeles County line.

“If Dave Carter had his way, we would run this campaign with a Xerox copier and 18 pairs of sneakers,” Carter campaign manager Mike Houlihan said.

The candidate hasn’t yet exchanged his pair of worn penny loafers for sneakers. But with the election nearing, he has added an even more “humbling” touch to his campaign. On Friday afternoons, Carter stands in the center divider of Brookhurst Street at Garden Grove Boulevard and waves at traffic with a Carter-for-Congress sign.

“A couple of hours standing on median dividers provides the voters, quite frankly, with a much-needed opportunity to stop and ask questions,” the candidate explained.

Some of his campaign consultants disagree, but they don’t question Carter’s earnestness. The drive that made Carter a war hero and later a top homicide prosecutor has found a new outlet in this congressional race.

And if the odds of beating a six-term assemblyman are long, Carter still believes he can win. “The easiest way to lose is not to try,” the judge said with a grin. “And there’s no losing in trying.”

Even Orange County Democrats who don’t back Carter consider him one of the best new candidates their party has seen in years, a fresh face among the party regulars.

A law-and-order Democrat who calls himself liberal on social issues, Carter and many of his early supporters, such as county Democratic Party Chairman Bruce Sumner, believe he relates well to the conservative, low- to middle-income Democrats of the 38th.

With his legal training, Carter is better educated than most district residents, according to census statistics. And the car he drives to precincts in Midway City or Buena Park is not a Chevy or a pickup truck but a Mercedes. Still, Carter said he feels at home in the district. He likes taking his children to dinner at the local In-N-Out Burgers. “Garden Grove is like Fremont, Calif., the place where I grew up--a working class neighborhood,” Carter recalled.

But Carter is a newcomer to the 38th. Although he bought a condominium in Garden Grove in November, he spent the previous 10 years in Laguna Beach. For that reason, some central county Democrats have complained that Carter, promoted by the so-called “limousine liberals” of the south county, might be “more comfortable” running there as well.

Chairman an Old Friend

Yet the man who recruited Carter for the race said he has few regrets. Democratic Party Chairman Sumner first approached Carter in November, 1984. Former Vice President Walter Mondale had just been trounced by President Reagan, and Orange County Democrats had suffered a major blow when five-term Rep. Jerry M. Patterson (D-Garden Grove) lost his 38th District seat to Dornan, a hawkish conservative who previously represented a West Los Angeles congressional district.

Carter and Sumner were old friends. They had car-pooled to the Santa Ana courts together and Sumner had followed Carter’s career: UCLA graduate, then a Vietnam vet with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. In 1968, Marine Corps officer Carter was shot and badly wounded while leading his platoon up a Khe Sanh hill.

After Vietnam, Carter got a law degree from UCLA and joined the Orange County district attorney’s office. A “hotshot prosecutor,” according to Sumner, Carter helped win the indictment of William Bonin, the so-called Freeway Killer. He compiled a won-lost record in prosecuting felonies from 1974 to 1981 that is unmatched by any county prosecutor, his old boss, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright, said.

57 Convictions in 59 Tries

The 59 felony cases Carter prosecuted during that period resulted in 57 convictions, one not-guilty verdict and one hung jury, Enright said. Appointed by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to the Municipal Court bench in 1981, Carter became a Superior Court judge the following year.

Though Carter had thought of running for supervisor or city council, Sumner’s proposal caught Carter off guard. He discussed it with his four children and decided to run.

Since December, however, the race has not gone as planned.

To be sure, when Carter made the rounds of the 38th District last year, he garnered support from some local union leaders and endorsements from 9 of the district’s 12 Democratic city council members.

And last October, accompanied by Orange County developers and Democratic financiers David Stein and Michael Ray, Carter flew to Washington to meet with national Democratic leaders, including Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Coelho’s committee promised to make Dornan their “No. 1 target in alifornia.”

But the promised funds are now on hold until after the June 3 primary between Carter and Robinson. Carter and the Orange County Democrats backing him had not expected a contested primary this June.

Indeed, the judge said that he and Robinson met privately “under a big tree on the patio” last August at a local Democratic event called the “Big Chill Party.” There, Carter said, Robinson promised that he would not run for the congressional seat.

Robinson said recently that he remembers no such promise. He considered the race for months, Robinson said, but simply did not announce until December, when former Rep. Patterson took himself out of the contest.

Carter said his first reaction to Robinson’s announcement was “anger . . . that we proceeded so far down the line” and that “he suddenly changed his mind.” But that no longer matters, Carter said. What matters is “proving I’m the only one who can beat Dornan.”

Fund-Raising Difficulties

The proof is expensive, however. For the primary, Carter has had to recruit more than 300 volunteers and raise more than $131,000--all to defeat Robinson, instead of Dornan, his principal target.

Also, Carter has had a harder time than expected raising money, sources close to the campaign said. Stein, a key backer, developer and Democratic financier, is himself in financial trouble. On April 17, for example, he was in default on a $49-million loan and facing foreclosure on his proposed $1-billion Monarch Beach Resort in Laguna Niguel. Instead of calling wealthy Democrats around the country and generating money for Carter, Stein has been trying to restructure his real estate business.

“Stein can’t tap his national connections,” one Carter backer mourned. And that has placed the onus of fund raising largely on Carter himself.

Four-year-old Lindsey Carter held tightly to a stuffed blue bear and her father’s hand as they visited a preschool in Garden Grove.

The trip, sandwiched between a newspaper interview and candidate Carter’s daily precinct walking, was partly personal, the judge said. Divorced, with joint custody of four children aged 4 to 14, Carter needed to find a day-care center for the younger ones while he was campaigning.

But day care was also a campaign issue for him, so the preschool inspection became campaign research as well.

“What do you need?” Carter asked Community Day Nursery Director Phyllis Neal, after she explained the preschool routine of snacks and naps and play time. Did she need federal funds to expand her center? Did she need legislation that would let her use public school classrooms when they were vacant after school? Actually, Neal replied, what she really needed was a new playground fence.

Carter admits that he is still boning up on issues that he would work on in Congress. Those he mentions most often come from personal experience.

Would End Parole Boards

Publicly funded day care is one of his priorities. So is “a vast overhaul of the criminal justice system” to eliminate parole boards, build more prisons and bar the practice of allowing criminals to serve only half their sentences. He also stresses more money for public education and for “education in substance abuse.”

Some of Carter’s critics have suggested that these issues are more appropriate for an Assembly or school board race rather than a race for Congress. Carter strongly disagrees.

He described his political philosophy as that of a “middle-of-the-road Democrat, a Harry Truman Democrat--conservative in foreign policy but also interested in maintaining traditional causes--the day care centers, funding for public education.”

He also stressed that he does not want to become a “professional politician” as, he believes, both Robinson and Dornan are. If elected to Congress, he vowed to continue to seek most of his money from individual contributors rather than from special interests and political action committees.

Carter said he is an independent politician. Although he has been a registered Democrat for all but one year--in 1978 Carter switched parties to back Assemblyman Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) for governor--Carter promised to vote his conscience rather than the party line.

Uncertain on Endorsement

“We have to get past this concept of strict adherence to party loyalty,” he said. “The idea that a Democrat should be attacking the Republican Party--that’s garbage. . . . I’ll vote my belief. I’ll vote Republican” if that appears to be the best way to go, he said.

In the same vein, if Robinson wins the primary, Carter is not sure that he will endorse the assemblyman. “I don’t like the idea of the politician throwing his weight behind the candidate like Mayor Daley,” he said. Rather, he would like his supporters to be “free to choose” whom to support after June 3.

The question might be moot, Carter suggested, because if he were to lose, he might take a week’s vacation and then go back to the bench. Because of judicial ethics, he would not be able to make a political endorsement, the judge said.

Carter sometimes worries that Robinson, with his many years in politics and greater fund-raising abilities, “may overwhelm me” with mailers and other appeals in the last days before the election. Still, he believes he will win.

In many ways, campaigning is like running a marathon, said the judge, who has run the Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 37 minutes.

‘Heck of a Congressman’

“Like a marathon, you run the race to win. But you have to really love the process, the training--enjoy the time on the road, enjoy the people, the personal contact,” he said.

Carter said he has truly loved campaigning. “I am blessed,” he said repeatedly, as he discussed the people he has met in this race. Besides, “I’m going to be one heck of a congressman,” he promised.

One last factor convinces Carter that he will triumph over Robinson.

“I tell you what,” the judge said with another of his perennial grins. “He (Robinson) is not going to stand in front of intersections.”