Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea, who was denied Communion by Roman Catholic Bishop Leo T. Maher because of her pro-choice stand on abortion, was the apparent victor Tuesday in her special-election battle with Carol Bentley for a seat in the California Senate.
The election was considered a referendum on abortion and how far the Roman Catholic Church may go in opposing it. With all 536 precincts reporting, Killea led with 50.6% of the vote--60,012 for Killea, 58,484 for Republican Assemblywoman Bentley.
Killea's apparent victory, however, remained uncertain, pending tabulation today of 2,796 absentee ballots that were dropped off at polling places Tuesday. Also to be counted in determining a winner were 50 write-in votes cast for Public Defender Tom Connolly. In order to win and avoid a runoff, the winner must receive more than 50% of all votes cast.
An underdog running in a heavily Republican district, Killea was able to largely offset the daunting partisan disadvantage confronting her through the extensive publicity generated by Maher's action.
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 councilwoman 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 in restricting abortion.
Maher's action revived the debate over separation of church and state, drawing interpretations both as a deserved punishment of one who flouted church orthodoxy and as an unwelcome church intrusion in politics.
The bishop's sanction also altered the dynamics of the race for the seat that Republican Larry Stirling vacated two months ago to accept a Municipal Court judgeship.
With the district's 49%-38% Republican registration edge over Democrats, Bentley had been considered the front-runner, despite her shorter tenure in Sacramento and lower name recognition. Maher's action, however, introduced a potent new element in the campaign.
Though Maher described his decision as "more pastoral than political," he expressed the belief that Catholics would heed his message.
"I doubt that Lucy Killea will get many Catholic votes," he said.
Far from damaging Killea, however, the order banning Killea from Communion proved to be an asset, giving the unassuming, low-key legislator overnight prominence and acting as a magnet for dollars and volunteers. Killea outspent Bentley $317,000 to $128,000 as of last week.
Moreover, it riveted public attention on the 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 the kind of emotional issue that could persuade pro-choice Republicans to cross party lines and generate a higher-than-usual Democratic turnout in the eastern San Diego County district.
But the episode also presented risks. Killea consultant Larry Sheingold noted that there was "a thin line between reacting effectively" and appearing eager to capitalize on an incident that Killea herself described as "emotional and painful." Accordingly, Killea persistently emphasized that the confrontation with Maher "was thrust upon me."
Bentley, meanwhile, watched with a mixture of amazement, confusion and chagrin as her opponent's presence in the media spotlight continued to grow.