Republican challengers in two Inland Empire Assembly district races are banking on massive voter registration drives to topple incumbent Democrats who won previous elections by narrow margins.
One target is Riverside County’s 68th Assembly District, where Assemblyman Steve Clute (D-Riverside), 40, a former Navy pilot, is facing Brian Carroll, 29, a Moreno Valley City Councilman who served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and the Navy.
The other is San Bernardino County’s 66th Assembly District, where Assemblyman Gerald Eaves (D-Rialto), 48, is being challenged by David Masters, 31, an attorney who moved to Fontana late last year and has few ties to local civic organizations. Eaves is a member of the dissident “Gang of Five” Democrats in the Assembly who have been challenging the control of Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
The Republican Assembly Political Action Committee has already pumped nearly $200,000 into the traditionally Democratic strongholds, which include some of the fastest-growing communities in the nation and are showing signs of going Republican.
GOP leaders are hoping that the flood of new home buyers who have never heard of Clute or Eaves will vote Republican. If Republicans can capture both seats, it could improve their chances of shifting the balance of power in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.
“The Republican National Committee and the California Republican Party are putting money into that area,” said Anne Richards, press secretary for Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale. “That, plus increasing Republican registration and the fact that this is a presidential election year, will put our candidates over the top.”
It takes 41 votes to elect a Speaker. Brown now has the support of 38 Democrats, meaning that he must win at least three more Democratic seats to ensure his position. There are 35 Assembly Republicans, so they must elect six more members to seize the speakership without the help of the Gang of Five. Each party has one vacant seat.
In October, San Bernardino County, which contains Eaves’ district, showed more registered Republicans than Democrats for the first time in history, according to the San Bernardino county registrar of voters.
On Oct. 3, there were 248,681 registered Republicans in the county, or 45.6% of all registered voters, compared to 241,264 registered Democrats, or 44.2%, registrar officials said.
Eaves’ district remains strongly Democratic--56% to 35% for the GOP. But Republicans are heartened by the fact that they generally are more likely to vote than Democrats.
In Riverside County’s sprawling 68th Assembly District, the number of registered Republicans hovered near the 37% level, compared to 55% for the Democrats, as it did in 1986, when Clute won a third term in office by edging out Republican newcomer Matt Webb by 1,645 votes.
In both districts, the issues are about the same, regardless of the candidates: crime, drugs and rapid growth. However, all four candidates have tried to outdo each other by appearing to be the toughest on crime.
Between the two incumbents, Republicans believe that Clute may be the most vulnerable, despite substantial financial support from his close ally Brown.
“Each election, Clute’s margin of victory has gotten smaller and smaller,” Richards said. “Now, we think Carroll has a chance at it. He’s well-known, well-spoken and extremely good at organizing.”
“We knew the seat was going to be a good one for Republicans to target since Steve won by only 2% of the vote” in 1986, said Carroll, a Moreno Valley resident of four years.
“I’m a real conservative; Clute tries to be one,” added Carroll, who plans to spend $400,000 on his campaign.
A lot of that money will come from developers in the district, as well as from Orange and Los Angeles counties, he said.
“I want them (developers) to prosper,” Carroll explained. “I want all business to prosper.”
Still, Carroll’s campaign strategists have had a hard time making political attacks stick against Clute, who has campaigned as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, with a voting record that does not follow liberal patterns.
Clute has won important endorsements, including the Riverside Sheriffs Assn., the California Teachers Assn. and some local Republicans, including Beaumont Mayor Jim Partain and Banning Mayor Larry Higgens.
Clute, who is chairman of the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee and the Assembly subcommittee on mobile homes, also has support among senior citizens, mobile home owners and the estimated 90,000 veterans who reside in the 180-mile-wide district that extends from Riverside to the Colorado River.
“He’s like a little snake you can’t catch,” complained Carroll’s campaign manager, Janice Ploeger. “Steve is a nice guy. He hasn’t made enemies because he hasn’t done anything to make anyone angry--or super-pleased. . . . There is no pattern to his (voting) record.”
Ploeger said Carroll’s campaign intends to spend at least "$75,000 on direct voter contact” through both door-to-door solicitations and phone-bank calls, during which “we are conducting advocacy conversations with Republicans and Democrats.” Ploeger added that the registration campaign was targeting young professional couples who have moved to the district for affordable housing from Orange and Los Angeles counties. She said in the last two years, for example, the Moreno Valley population has grown by 15,000.
A recent telephone survey of thousands of Democrats residing in Clute’s district, sponsored by Carroll’s campaign, included the following question: If you knew that Democratic Assemblyman Steve Clute voted for a bill to give income tax amnesty to illegal aliens, would it make a difference?
In fact, Clute voted on three separate occasions against the bill, which was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian in September, 1987.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing a campaign against us with a propensity to misrepresent the facts,” Clute said.
“There are some who could say it (the telephone survey) was suggestive,” Ploeger acknowledged.
But she defended the tactic, saying that Clute originally voted for the bill in one round of voting but changed his mind for the official tally.
Clute, who plans to raise at least 20% of a projected $400,000 in 1988 campaign funds, goods and services from Brown and Assembly Democrats, acknowledged that his chances of defeating the Republican attack may depend upon his ability to lead otherwise apathetic voters to the polls.
“It is critical that we get Democrats out to vote. We didn’t accomplish that last time,” Clute said.
In the 66th Assembly District, Republican challenger Masters has launched an all-out registration drive to defeat Eaves, a two-term Assemblyman who has won endorsements from nearly every major law enforcement association in the district.
But Masters believes that Eaves’ traditional support base in the working-class suburbs of Rialto and Fontana eroded during a bitter June 7 primary election against San Bernardino Community College Board Trustee Joe Baca. Eaves won that election by 3,885 votes.
Campaign statements showed that hopeful Assembly Republicans and Republican Assembly Leader Nolan have already channeled nearly $100,000 into the campaign that Masters estimated could cost $400,000 to win.
On the campaign trail, Masters has not missed many chances to attack Eaves’ integrity in the district, which includes San Bernardino, Rialto, Ontario, Fontana, Colton and Lake Arrowhead.
In a campaign brochure that resembled a corporate annual report, Masters pointed out that Eaves in 1987 obtained an interest-free, unsecured loan of $11,000 in campaign funds to pay part of a divorce settlement while he was waiting for a bank loan. Eaves reported the loan and later returned the $11,000 when it turned out that he did not need the money.
“They feel I’m injured by the scuzzy, dirty rotten stuff that went on in the primary,” Eaves said. “But it didn’t work for Baca. I won by 10% of the vote, even though he outspent me by over $200,000.”
On Monday, Masters’ campaign officials confirmed that their candidate had defaulted on an $11,000 student loan in 1984.
Jim Brulte, spokesman for the Masters campaign, said the loan was taken out in increments between 1979 and 1980 while Masters attended the University of La Verne. Brulte said the loan was being repaid under a schedule arranged with Valley National Bank of Phoenix in April, 1987. To date, Masters has repaid $4,125 of the loan, Brulte said.
“Here’s a guy who doesn’t pay his bills and yet he attacks Eaves’ integrity,” said Mike Lynch, Eaves’ campaign manager. “Hey, this is taxpayers’ money that he decided wasn’t important enough to handle . . . and he apparently didn’t care about paying back the loan until he decided to run for office.”
Not surprisingly, Eaves has been unable to obtain significant campaign contributions from Brown.
“But I have four friends who are going to help me,” Eaves said, referring to fellow Gang of Five members: Rusty Areias (D-Los Banos), Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra) and Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista).
Areias donated $40,000 to Eaves’ campaign and forgave a $15,000 debt, Condit gave $20,000 and forgave a loan of $25,000 and Calderon has pledged $25,000, according to Eaves’ campaign manager, Mike Lynch.
CLOSE ASSEMBLY RACES
Republican challengers in two Inland Empire Assembly district races are banking on massive voter registration drives to topple incumbent Democrats who barely squeaked by in previous elections.
DISTRICT 66: EAVES-MASTERS
Democrat Gerald Eaves, 48, left, a two-term assemblyman, a member of the dissident “Gang of Five,” and former steelworker from Rialto, is being challenged by David Masters, 31, an attorney who moved to Fontana late last year.
DISTRICT 68: CLUTE-CARROLL
Democrat Steve Clute, 40, left, three-term assemblyman and a former Navy pilot, faces Republican Brian Carroll, 29, a Moreno Valley councilman who served five years with the Marine Corps and the Navy. Carroll is looking to a large GOP registration effort.