In a race seen as a referendum on abortion and how far Catholic Church leaders may go in opposing it, Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea narrowly won a special election in a heavily Republican state Senate district Tuesday.
Three weeks after Catholic Bishop Leo T. Maher made her a national cause celebre by denying her Communion because of her pro-choice stand on abortion, Killea apparently defeated Republican Assemblywoman Carol Bentley in the 39th state Senate District--a conservative stronghold with a daunting 11 percentage point Republican registration edge.
With 2,800 absentee ballots that were dropped off at the polls Tuesday remaining to be counted today, it is mathematically possible--though improbable--that Bentley could overcome her 1,528-vote deficit. However, in order for Bentley to overtake Killea, she would have to draw a disproportionately large percentage of those absentee ballots--an unlikely development given that Killea handily carried the absentee votes counted Tuesday.
Final unofficial figures showed that Killea received 60,012 votes (50.6%), compared to 58,484 votes (49.4%) for Bentley, a first-term legislator who was seeking to become the fourth consecutive Republican from her 77th Assembly District to move up to the 39th District Senate seat. A minor third candidate, Tom Connolly, a public defender from El Cajon, was little more than a political footnote in the race, drawing only about 50 write-in votes.
Though better known, better financed and having a longer legislative resume than her opponent, Killea's apparent victory nonetheless was an improbable one attributable more to the fallout from Maher's unusually harsh--and, many felt, improperly political--sanction than anything said or done by either major candidate.
Indeed, although Killea, not wanting to be labeled a single-issue candidate, consistently stressed that abortion was "only one of many differences" between herself and Bentley, Maher's action undeniably galvanized her campaign, infusing it with a fervor rarely seen in state legislative races.
If his purpose was to make Killea an example to other pro-choice Catholics in public office, Maher's action did precisely that--though clearly not in the way he had intended. By guaranteeing that the volatile abortion question would overshadow all others, the bishop unintentionally drew campaign battle lines most favorable to Killea--in the process offsetting the daunting partisan disadvantage confronting her that, under normal circumstances, would have all but preordained a Bentley victory.
"We felt we had a good chance before, but this makes it more of a race," Killea said shortly after Maher's sanction.
Bentley glumly offered the same analysis, saying: "The bishop's action certainly played right into (Killea's) hands. In a way, he did my opponent's work for her."
Viewed as an important, if otherwise obscure, state legislative race at the outset, the 39th District contest was catapulted to national prominence in mid-November when Maher imposed his sanction against Killea.
Calling Killea "an advocate of this most heinous crime," Maher ordered her not to take Communion at Mass unless she recanted her position--something that the 67-year-old former San Diego City Council member made it clear she did not intend to do.
By making Killea the first American Catholic elected official so severely punished for a pro-choice stand on abortion, Maher ignited a political firestorm that provoked another heated round in the continuing public debate touched off by last summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision giving states broader authority to restrict abortion.
In addition, Maher's action revived the familiar debate over separation of church and state, drawing alternate interpretations as a deserved punishment of one who flouted church orthodoxy or an unwelcome church intrusion in politics.
Equally important, Maher's action dramatically altered the dynamics of the race for the seat that Republican Larry Stirling vacated two months ago to accept a Municipal Court judgeship.
If for no reason other than the district's 49%-38% Republican registration edge, the special election had been widely regarded as Bentley's to lose, despite her shorter tenure in Sacramento and lower name recognition. Maher's sanction, however, turned conventional political wisdom on its head, introducing a potent outside force that knocked the campaign off its axis, sending it careening off in wildly unpredictable directions largely beyond the control of its two principals.
Though Maher described his action as "more pastoral than political," even the bishop was well aware of the political ramifications of his controversial decision. Expressing hope that Catholics would heed his message, Maher said: "I doubt that Lucy Killea will get many Catholic votes."
Far from damaging Killea, however, Maher's action proved to be an asset, transforming the unassuming, low-key legislator into an overnight celebrity who made national television appearances on the Phil Donahue show, "CBS This Morning" and other network news programs.
Killea's new-found fame, in turn, acted as a magnet for dollars and volunteers, helping her to outspend Bentley by a more than a 2-to-1 ratio--$317,000 to $128,000, as of last week. Moreover, it riveted public attention on the very issue that Killea had always hoped to highlight as one of her major differences with Bentley, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is endangered.
Among Killea's strategists, abortion was seen as precisely the kind of emotional issue that could persuade pro-choice Republicans to cross party lines and generate a higher-than-usual Democratic turnout--factors essential to her chances in the heavily Republican district. The sprawling district covers most of eastern San Diego County, stretching from Ocean Beach to Imperial County and reaching north to Escondido and Ramona.
But, although the episode was a momentous political break for Killea, it also presented considerable potential risks. Killea consultant Larry Sheingold noted, for example, that there was "a thin line between reacting effectively" and appearing overly eager to capitalize on an incident that Killea herself described as "emotional and painful." To that end, Killea persistently emphasized that the confrontation with Maher "was thrust upon me," and declined press requests to accompany her to Mass.
Bentley, meanwhile, watched with a mixture of amazement, confusion and chagrin as her opponent's extended stay in the media spotlight depreciated her own candidacy from front-runner status to one mentioned almost as an afterthought in stories about the race.
"When you see your opponent's picture on Page 1 every day, and she's on the TV news every night . . . it is a little upsetting," the 44-year-old freshman legislator from El Cajon said.
Nevertheless, Bentley doggedly stuck to her original plan--chipping away at Killea's superior name recognition by building up her own, emphasizing the candidate's partisan differences in a district where that distinction clearly benefitted her, and trying to paint the four-term Democrat as a liberal with close ties to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).
"Lucy Killea likes to tell Republicans she's a Democrat with a small 'd,' " a Bentley mailer said. "But her voting record proves she's a Democrat with a big 'D' and a liberal with a big 'L.' "
Indeed, the two candidates differed on a range of issues beyond abortion, with Killea's votes generally falling within a moderate to liberal range, while Bentley typically hews to a conservative line.
San Diego County Election Results Results for write-in candidates may not be available at edition time. Percentages may not equal 100% because of rounding. Senate District 39 536 of 536 Precincts Reporting
Votes % Lucy Killea (D) 60,012 50.6 Carol Bentley (R) 58,484 49.4
Escondido School Trustees 94 of 94 Precincts Reporting
Votes % Bill Horn 5,707 46.9 Billy Falling 2,112 17.4 Larry Coyle 1,852 15.2 Stephen Thorne 728 6.0 Ray Lawrence 619 5.1 Harold Polesetsky 593 4.9 Terry Cottrell 429 3.5 Bill Tomkins 132 1.1