When Republicans look at San Diego's 78th State Assembly District, they see a Republican district represented by a Democrat.
In fact, the 78th District is the most heavily Republican Assembly district in the state held by the Democrats. Chagrined GOP leaders, encouraged by a dramatic rise in Republican voters' registration, hope to change that this fall.
"That district already is a Republican district in its composition," San Diego Republican Party Chairman Bob Schuman said. "Now, we plan on making it a Republican seat in Sacramento."
Rather than react with trepidation to such talk, 78th District Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) only chuckles when she hears Republican leaders boast about GOP challenger Earl Cantos Jr.'s prospects for victory in November.
"For years, the Republicans have been calling this their district," said Killea, who was elected to the Assembly in 1982 after serving four years on the San Diego City Council. "But (Democrat) Larry Kapiloff represented it for 10 years and now I've had it for four. I don't know how much more it takes to convince them that it's not a Republican district. I guess we'll just have to prove it again this year."
Somewhere between Republicans' optimistic predictions and Killea's confidence lies the true nature of this year's race in the 78th District, which stretches along the coast from Ocean Beach to Pacific Beach, extending inland to the Miramar Naval Air Station in the north, south to downtown San Diego and east to East San Diego.
In recent years, Democrats have held a small registration edge in the 78th District--a fact that, coupled with Killea's popularity among independents and Republicans throughout her political career, enabled her to win comfortably in her two previous Assembly races. In 1984, she defeated Republican Patrick Boarman by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
However, an aggressive registration drive by the Republicans has resulted in a 17,000-plus shift in the GOP's favor in less than three years. In October, 1983, the Democrats held a 77,991-to-61,355 lead in registration over the Republicans. After finally overtaking the Democrats this summer, the Republicans, as of Sept. 13, had 43.6% (85,763) of the district's 196,821 registered voters, compared to 43.1% (84,897) for the Democrats.
Republicans regard that shift as evidence of a conservative swing in the 78th District, often referred to as a "yuppie district" because it includes neighborhoods such as Hillcrest, Normal Heights and Kensington and has one of the lowest median ages among voters--31 1/2 years old--of any legislative district in the state.
"When registration changes that much, I think it's because the basic philosophical makeup of the district is changing, too," said Cantos, a handsome 30-year-old Kensington lawyer who looks younger than his age. A former minority consultant to the Assembly Public Safety Committee in Sacramento, Cantos was handpicked by state Republican strategists to oppose Killea.
Killea partisans dispute the theory that the district has undergone a philosophical transformation within the past several years.
"I see this as more a case of hard work by the Republicans than a realignment of the voters," said Killea campaign aide Craig Reynolds. "You've got to give the Republicans credit, though. In a close election, nothing's more important than registration, because no one plays in the game without a ticket."
Concerned about the need to, in the words of Killea campaign manager Jim Cunningham, "stop the tide," Democrats recently launched their own registration drive. Over the past two months, that effort, largely underwritten by Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), has added more than 5,000 Democrats to registration lists in the 78th District.
Democrats also are comforted by the knowledge that Killea's strength at the polls traditionally has cut across party lines. In 1984, amid President Reagan's landslide victory, Killea even outpolled Reagan in her district.
"Another Democrat might have problems in that district in the future, but not Lucy Killea," said Bill Cavala, a key state Democratic strategist on the staff of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). "Voters don't weigh her on the same scale as they perhaps do other politicians. She has a special personality that translates through to the district and tends to be a centrist in her policies. People don't see her in partisan terms."
Regardless, Cantos, who describes himself as "fiscally conservative and socially moderate," has made it clear that he intends to try to cast the race in a conservative-versus-liberal mold. His absence of a record in public office, however, has forced Cantos to rely more on rhetorical generalities than specific examples in an attempt to expand on that theme.
"Many times, voters have to pick between two shades of gray," Cantos said during a debate before the Mid-City Chamber of Commerce last week. "I think we offer a real choice. The district is becoming more conservative and Mrs. Killea's voting record is very, very liberal. I think she's out of step with the district."
In his public appearances, Cantos takes pains to note that Killea received a 90% favorable rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, while a conservative organization, the Free Enterprise Political Action Committee, approved of only 9% of Killea's votes.
"All those rankings prove is that I have a record and he doesn't," Killea argues. "I've tried to take a pragmatic approach to problems, while his approach is more ideological. One of the things you learn when you get in office is that there's no way to always please everybody. Of course, my opponent hasn't had that experience."
Although he has never before run for elective office, Cantos did unsuccessfully seek appointment to a vacant San Diego City Council seat that ultimately went to Gloria McColl in 1983. He also comes from a well-known San Diego family: His father is retired Municipal Court Judge Earl Cantos Sr., while his mother, Irene Cantos, formerly sang with the Starlight Opera. Those relationships have provided both name-recognition and financial benefits, the latter displayed by the $6,000 raised for Cantos' campaign at a recent tribute to his mother.
A San Diego native, Cantos was a business major at San Diego State University and received his law degree from the University of San Diego. Before moving back to San Diego early this year to begin planning his campaign against Killea, Cantos spent two years as a legislative aide in Sacramento.
Seeking to define the campaign's ideological battleground, Cantos has striven to inject the volatile death-penalty issue into the race--an issue that he argues illustrates "one of the most significant distinctions" between the two candidates. A strong death-penalty supporter, Cantos helped draft a death-penalty bill while in Sacramento and says that, if elected, he would work to strengthen capital-punishment laws.
Killea also says that she believes that the death penalty is "justified in some cases," but, by Cantos' count, has failed on five occasions during the past two years to vote for bills to strengthen death-penalty laws.
"I've voted to tighten up other loopholes," Killea said. "Besides, I don't see that as the major issue in this district or in this campaign."
Adopting a high-road stance and doing her best to ignore Cantos' charges, Killea, a 64-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency researcher, has made her own record the focus of her campaign. In particular, she points with pride to her legislation aimed at increasing trade with Pacific Rim nations and her role in extending San Diego's "workfare" program--in which welfare recipients are required to perform public service--while enacting statewide welfare reforms.
One of Killea's major setbacks this session occurred when she lost a battle over development curbs on Famosa Slough, along West Point Loma Boulevard near Ocean Beach. Over Killea's objections, the Legislature stripped away Coastal Commission jurisdiction over the wetlands, clearing the way for a possible waterfront condominium project. That issue may be difficult for Cantos to exploit, however, because environmentalist posturing would contradict his efforts to position himself to the right of Killea.
If reelected to a third two-year term, her priorities would include insurance reform, expansion of child-care programs, additional aid to local governments to combat drug abuse and increased emphasis on toxic waste cleanup, Killea said. An impressive legislative track record--14 of the 31 bills that she introduced last year became law, and several others were withdrawn at her request--lends credence to her claim that those goals are realistic ones.
Chafing under Cantos' oft-stated charge that she has "lost touch" with her district, Killea, a San Antonio, Tex., native who moved here 19 years ago, notes that she has returned to San Diego all but three weekends while the Legislature was in session during the past four years. A tireless campaigner who says she is "invigorated by person-to-person contact," Killea, whose infectious smile, low-key demeanor and simple, unadorned oratory frequently win over audiences, attends hundreds of community events annually.
Citing her self-described "pragmatic rather than partisan style," Killea adds that she does "not feel particularly threatened" by the increase in GOP registration in her district. Her confidence--as well as that of state Democratic strategists--was bolstered by the fact that, in their respective unopposed primaries last June, Killea outpolled Cantos by about 6,300 votes. That result is even more telling in light of Republicans' traditionally higher voter turnout and the fact that the GOP's spirited U.S. Senate primary gave local Republicans added incentive to go to the polls.
A significant indicator of the importance that state Republican leaders place on the "targeted" 78th District race, however, is that Gov. George Deukmejian is scheduled to appear here on Cantos' behalf at a $150-per-person fund-raiser next month--one of only a handful of personal appearances that the governor will make in Assembly races.
"On paper, you'd have to say that Earl has a great chance," said Assemblyman John Lewis (R-Orange), who plays a key role in decisions on how the Republican Assembly Political Action Committee will allocate its financial and manpower resources. "Earl seems to fit that district like a glove."
The Republican group already has dispatched two campaign organizers to San Diego to assist Cantos, and spent $30,000 to pay for two television adsscheduled to run the final two weeks of this month. Cantos is expected to receive substantially more money from the group in the campaign's closing weeks, with the size of the donations depending on the closeness of the race.
Both Cantos and Killea said that the final price tag of their respective campaigns could be more than $300,000 each.
Two minor candidates--American Independent candidate Charles Ulmschneider and Libertarian Joseph Shea--also will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot in the 78th District race.
State Democratic leaders, meanwhile, once thought that Killea also might need a heavy infusion of party-funneled money from Sacramento to turn back the GOP's challenge, but now have changed their mind.
"Mrs. Killea has gone it on her own and doesn't really seem to need much help from the (Democratic) caucus," said Richie Ross, who has taken a leave from Assembly Speaker Brown's staff to help coordinate the Democrats' statewide strategy.
Even some local Republicans privately question whether a political novice was the party's best choice to try to parlay voter registration gains into a seat in Sacramento. "It's hard to believe this was the best horse available to saddle up," one GOP consultant said.
Indeed, despite his family's background, Cantos is hardly a household name in San Diego. In addition, with Election Day only six weeks away, Cantos still has some rough edges as a candidate--notably, campaign oratory characterized more by platitudes and a kind of gee-whiz-aw-shucks enthusiasm than detailed discussion of issues.
While Cantos seems well briefed on Killea's record, his comments on his own policies or legislative goals are often limited to generalities about the prospect of "working closely with the governor and the district" on various programs.
Nevertheless, Cantos argues that he is making gradual progress in her goal of convincing voters that "I'm more in sync with the district" than Killea.
"I truly believe that all I have to do to win is get her voting record out," Cantos said. "Once voters compare my positions to her record, I'll be the victor."
Cantos paused, then added, "But maybe all candidates feel that way."