Costly State Controller’s Race Goes Down to the Wire

Times Staff Writer

When the epitaph is finally written on the primary contest for state controller, it is likely to read: Never has so much been spent for so little.

The three Democrats and three Republicans vying for the post will have spent more than $4 million by the time the polls open on Tuesday. But surveys have consistently shown that a high percentage of voters still have no idea whom to support.

The result is a last-minute barrage of television and radio commercials featuring such disparate--some would say irrelevant--images as endorsements from kidnaped children, a reference to the Mediterranean fruit fly that once threatened California agriculture and a conversation with a fish over the defunct plan to move Northern California water to the arid south.

“Mr. Undecided clearly wins the day at this point,” conceded Mike Gage, a spokesman for Assemblyman Gray Davis, one of three candidates for the Democratic nomination.

A Los Angeles Times Poll in April showed 51% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans as undecided in the primary contest. A repeat poll taken May 14-19, after several of the candidates had launched aggressive television campaigns, showed little change. About 46% of the Democrats and 58% of Republicans still had not made up their minds.


Among Democrats, Sen. John Garamendi of Walnut Creek held a slight lead in recent polls. But results of a statewide poll released Thursday by Teichner Associates for KABC-TV showed Davis tied with Garamendi--an indication that Davis’ $1.2-million television campaign was having some effect.

A third Democratic candidate, Assemblyman Alister McAlister of Fremont, remained well behind, but fighting hard with a unique radio campaign that includes an original song dubbing him “Honest McHonest” and warning of his rivals’ “burning ambitions.”

On the Republican side, Sen. William Campbell of Hacienda Heights, who was the first Republican to begin television ads, seemed to have taken an early lead. But the latest polls showed him neck-and-neck with Assemblyman Don A. Sebastiani of Sonoma, even though Sebastiani waited until this week to begin his own commercials.

Likewise, former Chairman Dan Stanford of the Fair Political Practices Commission remained close to his two rivals even while being outspent by Campbell and without the famous wine-making name of Sebastiani to bolster his familiarity among voters.

With such close races, each candidate is hoping his television and radio commercials will spell the difference as voters begin focusing on the race. When they do, this is a sample of what they are likely to see and hear:

- The image is one of compassion. Davis, smiling reassuringly, gazes down at Justin Murphy, a missing child who was found after his picture appeared on milk cartons and grocery bags under a program founded by Davis. The child looks up admiringly at Davis and says: “Thanks for bringing me home to my mom.”

- A movie marquee is featured in a recent Garamendi ad announcing a new “triple feature--Gray Davis and the budget, Gray Davis and the Medfly crisis, Gray Davis and Rose Bird.” Reminding voters that Davis once served as chief of staff to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., the ad concludes, “Now Gray Davis wants to star as controller. To manage our tax dollars?”

- Sebastiani’s Southern California television ads include endorsements by tax fighters Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann. But in the north, his radio spots feature a conversation with a fish worried about the prospects of a peripheral canal that would move water to Southern California. The canal proposal was rejected by voters in 1982.

Of all the ads that have run thus far, Davis’ missing children spots have stirred the most controversy. Leaders of several child protection groups have protested the commercials as exploiting children and irrelevant to the office of state controller--a job that involves overseeing the receipt and disbursement of public money.

McAlister, in fact, has sought to take advantage of the controversy in one of his commercials that portrays the election as a horse race with “jockey Gray Davis on his mount, Lost Child.”

Invented Issue?

Davis contends that Garamendi’s campaign staff invented the issue by encouraging some of the smaller missing-children groups to go public with their criticism even while leaders of the state’s major child protective organizations have remained supportive.

“Garamendi’s only contribution to this (missing children) effort was to put it down,” Davis fumed.

Davis aides also criticized Garamendi’s commercials for their reference to Davis’ handling of the budget while he served as chief aide to former Gov. Brown. The letter contends that Garamendi, not Davis, was at fault for budget problems because he was on the Senate budget writing committee.

The advertising campaigns of the three Republicans have generated little controversy. But on Thursday, Sebastiani, who has kept a low profile throughout much of the race, charged in a Sacramento press conference that Campbell had “stabbed Republicans in the back” by opposing a 1984 ballot initiative that sought to cut legislative expenses along with the powers of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).

Campbell and at least two other Senate Republicans had contributed to the campaign against the initiative, which later was ruled unconstitutional in the courts. At the time of Campbell’s contribution, however, the campaign committee was controlled by Robert Monagan, a Republican and former Assembly Speaker who opposed the measure as “bad government and because it was unconstitutional.”

“This whole thing comes from the fact that this is the last week of the campaign,” Campbell said of the controversy. “What it indicates is that I must be farther ahead than the polls indicate.”