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Chacon Confident of Edge in Election Race With Ard

Times Staff Writer

When all is said and done in the 79th State Assembly District campaign, the race comes down to one basic political fact: Republicans do not often beat Democratic incumbents in districts in which the Democrats hold a more than 2-to-1 edge in voter registration. And, barring a major upset, that pattern is unlikely to change this year.

Assemblyman Peter Chacon (D-San Diego) acknowledges that his Republican challenger, the Rev. Robert Ard, is perhaps the most credible opponent he has faced since first winning the seat in 1970. Accustomed to facing only token opposition, Chacon’s bid for a ninth two-year term pits him against a popular, widely respected black minister and community leader who arguably is as well known within political circles as the assemblyman himself.

Ard also possesses other significant assets--among them, public speaking skills honed in the pulpit of the church he founded, backing from prominent Republicans and longtime leadership in the black community that could attract traditional Democratic votes--that strengthen his candidacy.

And yet, for all that, Ard is given little realistic chance of preventing Chacon’s return to Sacramento. While Ard, like most long shots, is unwilling to concede what seems obvious to most political observers, he does admit that “the numbers are stacked against” him in his campaign.

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“It’s very easy for me to understand how someone could look at the numbers in this district and decide it’s impossible for a Republican to ever win here,” Ard said. “But this is not a typical race and I’m not a typical Republican candidate. My job is to get people to look beyond the numbers to see that I do have a chance.”

Ard’s interest in getting people to “look beyond the numbers” is understandable, considering that those numbers loom as perhaps a more formidable obstacle to him than even Chacon himself, whom Ard describes as “an ineffective, tired man who isn’t doing the job for the district.”

The 79th District, which extends from Lindbergh Field through downtown to North Park, east to Lemon Grove and Spring Valley and south to Bonita, is the most heavily Democratic Assembly district in San Diego County. The district also includes Southeast San Diego, Logan Heights, Paradise Hills and Encanto--neighborhoods with high concentrations of minority voters who traditionally support Democrats.

Democrats currently outnumber Republicans among registered voters in the district by a 2-to-1 margin--78,222 to 39,391. Since winning the seat, the 61-year-old Chacon has been easily reelected every two years, generally receiving about two-thirds of the vote.

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Ard, however, professes confidence that he can overcome those tough odds, based on his belief that he will be able to attract substantial numbers of crossover votes from traditional Democrats--in particular, from black voters.

“These people may be registered Democrats, but I believe they’re going to see me as not just another Republican, but as someone they know and have worked with for years,” said Ard, the 48-year-old founder of the Christ Church of San Diego and a major figure in the black community for more than a decade.

Ard, the former head of the Black Leadership Council, a group of professionals and other organizations, says that he expects strong support from many of his fellow black ministers and their congregations. In addition, he notes that 40 Democrats switched their registrations earlier this year to sign his Republican nomination papers, an incident that he argues has more than symbolic value.

“That is an example of what could happen in this race,” Ard explained. “These are people who voted Democratic in the past and may vote for other Democrats this time, too. But in the 79th District, they’re going to do something different this year.”

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Chacon, though, characterizes Ard’s potential scenario as more wishful thinking than realistic possibility in a district with “the most loyal Democrats in San Diego County.”

“If he’s thinking there’s going to be a big crossover just because he’s a minority candidate, then he’s full of beans. I’m a member of a minority also, and one that’s growing quickly here,” said Chacon, who is Latino. “So that’s not going to do it for him.”

In addition, the fund-raising numbers do not look much more encouraging for Ard than the registration figures. Paul Chacon, his father’s campaign director, said that the assemblyman may spend up to about $100,000 in his campaign, and could easily raise substantially more.

Ard, meanwhile, spoke of spending $250,000 at the outset of his campaign, later scaled that back to $125,000 and concedes that “we might even have to modify that” downward. Although Ard is being assisted in his fund-raising efforts by prominent Republicans such as San Diego City Councilman Bill Cleator and financier Tom Stickel, he has raised only about $30,000 to date--most of which has been spent.

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While state Republican leaders already have pumped tens of thousands of dollars into GOP challenger Earl Cantos Jr.'s campaign in the neighboring 78th District--where the two major parties’ registration figures are evenly balanced--they have provided Ard with encouragement but little money. That limited financial support is widely viewed as evidence that GOP leaders in Sacramento realize that their money can be put to better use elsewhere.

“The Ard race is a real wild card,” said Assemblyman John Lewis (R-Orange), a key GOP strategist. “We’re waiting to see polling data before deciding whether we’re going to go in there later.” Translation: unless the race changes dramatically in the next few weeks, don’t look for much party money to flow to Ard.

“If I was chairman of the Republican Party and saw the numbers, I could think of a lot of better ways to spend my money,” Paul Chacon said.

While not trying to explain away the significance of the Democrats’ lopsided domination of the district, Ard has been spending most of his time attacking Chacon’s performance. Although Ard faults Chacon for a handful of votes, his criticism is usually confined to general allegations such as charges that Chacon “has a helter-skelter method of addressing things” and “isn’t providing active leadership.”

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Chacon’s announcement late last year that he intended to retire at the end of his present term, followed by his subsequent change of mind, has allowed Ard to question the incumbent’s commitment to the job. Ard has suggested that Chacon decided to seek reelection only because party leaders feared that his retirement could endanger a safe Democratic seat and because a scheduled legislative salary raise next year would improve his pension.

“When someone says he plans to retire, that indicates a tiredness to me,” Ard said. “That’s understandable, because he’s been doing this for a long time. The noble thing to do if you’re tired is to just step down. You can change your mind about retiring, but that doesn’t erase the reasons you thought about retiring in the first place.”

Chacon, though, described his thoughts of retirement as “a passing fancy” that stemmed from a desire to spend more time with his family, not a lack of interest in the Legislature.

“During the holidays last year, my wife and I reviewed my 15 years in office and thought, gee, we haven’t been able to spend much time together because of the need to travel back and forth so much,” Chacon said. “But the more I thought about it, I realized this is a significant job that I enjoy. I don’t think it’s a crime to entertain thoughts of retiring. I’ll stay in this job as long as my constituents will have me.”

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Chacon also bristles at Ard’s charge that he has “lost touch” with the district.

“That’s a lot of malarkey and a rather common charge made by candidates who run against incumbents,” Chacon said. “You say that when you have nothing else to say. I’m in the district most weekends and my staff is always busy. It may not always make headlines . . . but we’re always doing a lot behind the scenes.”

Responded Ard: “I don’t know what he’s been doing behind the scenes, but there’s also a need to do some things in front of the scenes that he’s not doing.”

As highlights of his present term, Chacon cites legislation that he sponsored aimed at helping the homeless, providing tax breaks to the beleaguered tuna industry and creating a toll-free hot line for runaway youths. While the hot line has been criticized as duplicating an existing program, Chacon argues that its worth is demonstrated by the nearly 100 daily calls being received on the statewide hot line.

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Meanwhile, Ard, who two years ago temporarily changed his party registration so that he could support Jesse Jackson’s Democratic presidential campaign, has, because of that and other incidents, had to work to convince many GOP leaders that he is, as he put it, “a real, true Republican.” Although he recites the vintage Republican litany about the need to “break the welfare cycle by making sure it isn’t easier for people to go to the mailbox than to the work place,” he also supports job-training and other social programs more in vogue among Democrats than Republicans.

“Initially, there was some skepticism,” said Stickel, chairman of Ard’s campaign and county chairman of Gov. George Deukmejian’s reelection campaign. “Not all Republicans rushed to jump on the bandwagon. But since then, he’s done an exceptional job of articulating his philosophy and has been able to convince a lot of the original doubters.”

Ard argues that he can make his advocacy of continued social-welfare spending palatable to rank-and-file Republicans by pressing for programs that hold the potential for long-term savings--by, for example, shifting funds from programs that “give out money for doing nothing” to job-training plans that ultimately could lead to self-sufficiency.

“We’re going to continue to spend this money anyway--the question is how we’re going to spend it,” Ard explained. “I want to put it in areas that offer the potential for significant payoffs down the road, rather than just pour money down what seems to be a bottomless pit.”

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Chacon concurs with Ard on the desirability of promoting self-sufficiency among the poor and the disadvantaged, but adds, “It’s a good goal, but it’s not always possible.”

“If Rev. Ard really believes that everyone ought to lift himself up by the bootstrap, he ought to tell that to the old people who need help, the women who need child care and others who depend on these programs for very basic needs,” Chacon said.

Despite those and other differences between the two candidates, discussion about the 79th District race inevitably returns to the voter registration imbalance that seemingly makes Democratic victories a foregone conclusion.

Two minor candidates, Libertarian Pat Wright and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Bernice Wertheimer, also will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot.

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“We’re running against the odds--that’s obvious,” Ard said. “I’m not saying it will be easy to win. But I am saying it’s possible.”

Chacon, however, like a poker player who knows that the game is being played with his cards at his house, is unperturbed by such remarks.

“There’s no way Bob Ard is going to win this race,” Chacon said. “No way.”


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