Surviving the most serious test of his career, Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) retained his seat Tuesday, overcoming the political challenge posed by allegations of sexual harassment that had him reeling in the closing stages of his campaign.
Bates, who had been considered a shoo-in before the harassment allegations surfaced, won a closer-than-expected race in the 44th District against Republican Rob Butterfield Jr. to join other incumbents in a sweep of local congressional and state legislative races.
A political novice whose flagging campaign was rejuvenated by Bates’ woes, Butterfield sought in the closing weeks to turn the race into a referendum on the Democrat’s honesty and integrity. However, in the end, the district’s 55%-32% Democratic voter registration advantage, combined with Bates’ combative response to the charges, undermined Butterfield’s strategy.
In other closely watched contests, Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) defeated Republican Byron Wear in the $1-million, 78th-District contest. Her Democratic colleague, Steve Peace, defeated another well-funded, aggressive GOP opponent, Steve Baldwin, in the 80th District.
As expected, the 77th Assembly District seat vacated by Republican Larry Stirling, who moved up to the state Senate with a one-sided victory Tuesday, stayed in GOP hands as Carol Bentley handily defeated Democrat Sam Hornreich. Stirling will succeed retiring state Sen. Jim Ellis (R-San Diego) in the 39th District.
No other local congressional or state legislative incumbent was seriously challenged this fall, as many of them rolled up landslide reelection margins of 2-to-1 or better.
The heavily pro-incumbent slant in this year’s races reflects a historical pattern in San Diego, where only two congressional or legislative incumbents have lost in the last 16 years: GOP Assemblyman E. Richard Barnes in 1972 and Democratic Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin in 1980.
In most local districts, lopsided registration figures, huge disparities in incumbents’ and challengers’ campaign treasuries and other factors usually produce races that illustrate not so much democracy in action as democracy going through the motions.
The exception to that rule among the four local congressional contests was Bates’ reelection campaign.
A month before the election, Bates appeared headed for his fourth consecutive landslide victory in the heavily Democratic 44th District. However, the complexion of the race changed dramatically when more than a dozen current or former Bates staff members anonymously complained to a small Washington newspaper in late September that Bates habitually harassed female employees sexually and treated workers cruelly. Two former Bates female aides then filed formal harassment complaints with a U. S. House ethics panel.
Butterfield, who all but accepted the inevitability of defeat before the bombshell, hammered away at what he termed “the integrity issue” in the closing weeks of the race, describing Bates as an “embarrassment” to the district.
Hoping to quell the political storm, Bates conceded occasional “careless . . . flirting and kidding around” on his part, but disputed most of the charges and accused the Republicans of “trying to blow up a small thing into the crime of the century.” A scrappy, street-smart campaigner, Bates also launched a caustic counterattack, describing Butterfield as “the Dan Quayle of San Diego” and as having “more angles on the truth than a used-car salesman.”
In contrast, the three other local congressional incumbents had little trouble dispatching their opponents.
In the 41st District, Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) won a fifth two-year term by defeating Democrat Dan Kripke and Libertarian Dick Rider, both of whom also ran unsuccessfully against him in 1986, and Peace and Freedom Party candidate C. T. Weber. Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) turned back Democrat Howard Greenebaum and Libertarian Daniel Muhe to gain a fourth term in the 43rd District, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) won a fifth term by easily defeating Democrat Pete Lepiscopo and Libertarian Perry Willis in the 45th District.
Of the seven local Assembly and two state Senate races on the ballot, the most closely contested was the Killea-Wear campaign in the 78th District, which has a partisan balance that drew close attention--and heavy infusions of money--from both major parties. As a result, the final price tag in the 78th District contest was expected to surpass $1 million--the first local state legislative race to cross that financial threshold.
Throughout the race, Wear, an unsuccessful 1987 San Diego City Council candidate, portrayed Killea as “a very nice lady who just hasn’t done much for the district.” Killea defended her six-year tenure as “an active, productive track record,” but her campaign centered on a slogan emphasizing her personal popularity: “Representing the best in people.” Libertarian Kurtis McMillen also was on the 78th District ballot.
Only two other Assembly races were regarded as even marginally competitive: Peace’s bid for a fourth term in the 80th District and the Bentley-Hornreich contest for the 77th-District seat now held by Republican Stirling.
The four other Assembly incumbents--Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad) in the 74th District, Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas) in the 75th District, Bill Bradley (R-Escondido) in the 76th District and Pete Chacon (D-San Diego) in the 79th District--faced little more than token opposition and easily retained their seats. State Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), whose district includes parts of North County, did the same in her 37th-District race.