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Scramble Begins for Rep. Coelho’s Seat : Likely Candidates: 4 Assemblymen, a Mayor, Congressman’s Aide

Times Staff Writer

The sudden decision of Rep. Tony Coelho to resign from Congress has touched off a preliminary scramble for his seat among four San Joaquin Valley assemblymen, the mayor of Modesto and a top aide to Coelho.

The contest is shaping up to be an unusually competitive race, with both the Republican and Democratic parties vying for the seat in a special election this summer and fall.

Among those seriously considering entering the race are Democratic Assemblymen Rusty Areias of Los Banos and Gary A. Condit of Ceres--two close friends and members of the rebel “Gang of Five” who last year unsuccessfully challenged the leadership of Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

Assemblyman Jim Costa of Fresno, a Democrat who chairs the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, is almost certain to run for the seat.

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And a fourth Democrat considering running is Fred Hatfield, 34, who is Coelho’s chief of staff. If Hatfield decides to run, he will have Coelho’s endorsement, a spokesman for the congressman said.

On the Republican side, Assemblyman Bill Jones of Fresno is considering whether to run against Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside, who quickly announced her candidacy on Saturday.

Coelho, the powerful Democratic whip from Merced, stunned Democrats and Republicans alike with his announcement Friday that he will resign rather than let an investigation into his personal finances embarrass his party. Coelho acknowledged earlier this month that he bought a $100,000 “junk bond” underwritten by Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. with the help of a $50,000 loan that he did not disclose as required by law.

Coelho’s resignation is effective June 15. When the seat is officially vacant, it will be up to Gov. George Deukmejian to call a special election. A spokesman for the governor said the primary vote most likely would be held at the end of the summer. A general election, if necessary, could be consolidated with local elections on Nov. 7.

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For all of the elected officials who are considering running, a special election has the advantage of coming at a time when they would not have to give up their present offices in order to run. As a result, the race is likely to remain quite crowded with candidates pursuing ambitions for higher office.

“It’s pretty hard to dissuade someone from passing up a free ride,” said Costa, 37, who after 11 years in the Assembly has made no secret of his desire to go to Congress.

The San Joaquin Valley district includes Modesto and the northern part of the city of Fresno. But for the most part it is rural, taking in all or parts of Stanislaus, Merced, Mariposa and Fresno counties.

Voter registration in the district is about 55% Democratic and 35% Republican. But leaders of both parties view the seat as one that either side could win, since Democrats are less likely than Republicans to vote. A special election is likely to produce an even lower voter turnout, boosting the GOP’s chances.

An Initial Edge

Among Democrats, the 41-year-old Condit would appear initially to have an edge, since all of his Assembly district is within the boundaries of the congressional district. As an assemblyman, Condit already represents more than half the voters of the congressional district.

In contrast, Costa’s Assembly district takes in only about a quarter of the congressional seat and Areias has an even smaller portion.

Areias, a 39-year-old dairy farmer, is casting himself as the best friend of agriculture, which makes up the most important power bloc in the region. “I’m the only active agriculturalist on the Democratic side looking at the race,” he said.

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One Democratic insider suggested that it is to Condit’s advantage to have a crowded Democratic field, while Costa would fare better if he could take on Condit head-to-head.

But all three Democratic assemblymen conferred over the long weekend and on Tuesday as they weighed whether to enter the race.

Among Republicans, the field is less crowded. As an assemblyman, Jones, 39, would have an advantage in raising money and building a campaign organization. However, his Assembly seat takes in only the rural, southern end of the congressional district, giving him little visibility in the more populated northern region.

Whiteside, 46, the only announced candidate in the race, points out that her city of Modesto provides a strong base with more than a quarter of the district’s population.

“I think the issue is good government,” she said, “and I’m not sure it isn’t an advantage not to have been involved in all that stuff that goes on in Sacramento and Washington.”


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