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Saldana Faces Heavy Odds in GOP Stronghold

Times Staff Writer

When Gilbert R. Saldana won the Democratic primary in the 21st Congressional District on Tuesday, the young upstart just might have stolen a little of Elton Gallegly’s thunder.

Some of the selling points Gallegly used to win the GOP primary convincingly are shared by Saldana. Their resumes are remarkably similar.

During a caustic primary battle with Tony Hope, Gallegly never let voters forget that he has served as mayor of Simi Valley for six years.

But that’s no big deal for Saldana, 27. For the past six years, Saldana has alternated serving as mayor and vice mayor of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island. In 1982, President Reagan congratulated him for being one of the youngest mayors ever to preside over an American city.

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Gallegly, 42, is a realtor and a small businessman. Ditto for Saldana, who is a realtor and a small businessman.

Gallegly also proudly talks about his community roots; Simi Valley has been his home for 18 years. But Saldana’s roots go even deeper.

Arrived in 1915

The Democrat’s grandfather landed on Santa Catalina in 1915 after chewing gum magnate William Wrigley made him the superintendent of gardening at his estate and the rest of the island, which Wrigley owned at that time.

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The gardener raised 11 children, all of whom remained on the tiny island, so that today a fair number of the islanders are related to Saldana. The candidate’s mother is the postmistress, his father is the island’s only barber and, continuing tradition, an uncle remains the island’s gardener.

But Gallegly enjoys one thing Saldana does not: the odds.

The strangely shaped 21st District, which blankets eastern Ventura County and parts of western San Fernando Valley before dipping into the Pacific Ocean to include Santa Catalina Island, is a GOP stronghold. Because the district is historically hostile to Democratic contenders, many believe the general election showdown between the two mayors will be anticlimactic.

Saldana acknowledges that the odds are against him, but he cautions that underdogs should never be underestimated.

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“Look at a guy like Ed Zschau,” Saldana said, citing the GOP’s nominee for the U.S. Senate. “He was a virtual unknown. It proves anything can happen.”

But Saldana also must contend with another sizable handicap: the Pacific Ocean.

When Saldana leaves his home on the island it takes 2 1/2 hours by boat and car to reach the rest of the 21st District. Even though Saldana has been a popular elected official in the district, the island’s isolation makes him virtually unknown in the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County.

While Gallegly’s adopted hometown can provide him with thousands of votes, Saldana could garner only 740 votes if every single Democrat on Catalina trotted to the polls.

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During the primary just 200 island residents voted; 176 of them cast ballots for Saldana. (He said jokingly he has been trying to guess who the 24 holdouts were.)

Many more showed their support Friday afternoon when Saldana returned to the island for the first time since winning the primary. Sirens wailed from the harbor patrol boats and water plumes leaped from the fire boats. Once on shore, the congressional candidate was greeted by 300 to 400 residents who held a little parade through downtown Avalon.

Attracts Republicans

Saldana said he does have a track record of wooing Republican voters. For example, although Catalina is largely Republican, he said he has never experienced trouble winning elections.

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He said he will stress during the campaign that, as a moderate Democrat, he can appeal to moderate Republicans.

Gallegly, in contrast, is a staunchly conservative Republican, who calls President Reagan his one true political hero.

Saldana, who beat five other Democratic challengers in the primary, said he will continue to rely upon a paid political consultant to advise him. He intends to buttonhole Democratic leaders to help him meet his campaign goal of $300,000. He will also concentrate on registering more Democrats.

During the primary season, 5,000 new Democrats were added to the rolls in the district, thanks to a voter registration drive subsidized by state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles).

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Saldana, who seems to share Gallegly’s tenacity and threshold for putting in long hours, could not predict what tone the campaign will take.

“If I can be Mr. Nice Guy and win, then that’s what I’ll do,” Saldana said.

But noting the bruising nature of the GOP primary, he added, “They (Republicans) gave us what we needed to stage a fight. If we decide to go that direction, we have ammunition.”


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