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Inland Empire Assembly Race Turns Into Free-for-All

Times Staff Writer

Longtime Assemblyman Bill Leonard’s (R-Redlands) decision to run for the state Senate has led to a free-for-all with seven Republican candidates seeking the vacant 61st Assembly District seat.

The candidates on the June 7 Republican primary ballot represent a spectrum of factions of the old political guard battling each other, as well as new arrivals to whom traditional alliances mean nothing.

Political observers and even some candidates said they are surprised that Inland Empire “kingmakers” who for years have dominated party politics in this district, which stretches from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Colorado River, have been unable to unite behind a single candidate.

“Things are changing; people aren’t listening to the old guard anymore,” said Mary Wilson, 68, a Republican activist in Redlands. “I haven’t seen anything like this race since I got involved in politics here 40 years ago.”

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A New Era

Tim Johnson, 43, a Redlands city councilman and Republican candidate for the Assembly seat, agreed.

“It used to be that if your grandfather wasn’t born here, don’t bother applying for anything,” Johnson said. “The new voters coming in will create a whole new era of officeholders.”

The area has experienced a huge influx of new residents from urban centers in Orange and Los Angeles counties, who are seeking affordable housing. Many of them commute to jobs outside the Inland Empire. The new residents are not familiar with the area’s founding families and feel no allegiance to the political power structure.

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Leonard, who hopes to fill the seat left open by retiring Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora), has endorsed a successor, his administrative assistant and campaign manager, Paul Woodruff.

‘Checkbook Race’

Leonard, among others, suggested that the candidate who raises the most money will probably win what has been described as a “checkbook race.”

“I’m supporting Paul financially,” Leonard said, “and I am soliciting help from other legislators.”

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Still, at least five Republican candidates are thought to have enough local name recognition and financial support to have a shot at winning the primary election vote, which is expected to be sharply divided.

Each is wooing segments of the district’s diverse population, ranging from high-desert dwellers and mobile-home owners to affordable-home buyers and even the Seventh-day Adventist community of Loma Linda to help put them over the edge.

GOP Candidates

In addition to Johnson and Woodruff, 28, the Republican candidates include Redlands City Councilman Mickey Lawson, 42; Apple Valley health care administrator John C. Lewis, 52, who has received formidable support from his brother, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Highland), and Yukaipa apple grower David Handsberger, 47. Redlands City Councilman Charles G. De Mirjyn, 70, and Apple Valley plastic surgeon George T. Craig, 53, are also running.

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As it stands, 49% of the district’s 175,938 registered voters are Republican. Another 40% are registered Democrats, according to the county registrar of voters.

Because a Republican is expected to win the Assembly seat held by Leonard since 1978, the Republican Caucus in Sacramento has withheld support of any individual candidate.

“The caucus is not backing anyone,” said Anne Richards, spokeswoman for Republican Caucus leader Pat Nolan. “Pat has made it clear he is not going to back anyone on an open seat where Republicans are running against each other.”

‘The Boys’

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Locally, Johnson has received financial support from prominent Inland Empire Republican fund-raiser Martin Matich. Beyond that, Johnson recently served as executive director of an organization of powerful local business owners formally known as the Inland Empire Economic Council. Some residents, including Johnson, refer to it as simply “The Boys.”

Handsberger, who has borrowed $55,000 for his campaign, complained that the crowded field has made it difficult to solicit funds.

“We are all going to the same well,” Handsberger said. “But people outside of the area are saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to contribute because I don’t know who will win.’ ”

Under Investigation

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Meanwhile, Lawson has come under investigation for impersonating a police officer by wearing a Redlands police uniform in a campaign photograph. Although Lawson was a reserve officer from 1973 to 1984, he was not authorized to suggest that he is still a member of the force, Redlands Police Capt. Lewis Nelson said. The case has been turned over to the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.

Lawson called the charges “petty and politically motivated” and denied that the problem could hurt his chances.

The only candidate to file in the Democratic primary is Yukaipa attorney Wes Ford.

“I’d have to toss a five-headed coin to figure out who is going to win this Republican primary,” Ford said.

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Ford acknowledged that his chances of winning the election are slim in this traditionally Republican area. But he has a strategy: “I am not mentioning the fact that I am a Democrat in any of my campaign literature . . . and (I’m) avoiding public endorsements from unions.”


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