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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS SAN DIEGO COUNTY : Voter Discontent Has Incumbents Squirming

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Little more than a year ago, political consultant Nick Johnson half-jokingly described San Diego elections as being “usually about as unpredictable as elections in Russia.”

“If you’re an incumbent here, it’s like being on the Communist Party ticket in Russia or East Germany,” the Democratic consultant said. “You’re that safe.”

Today, Johnson’s comparison is perhaps even more apt than when he made it, though for reasons he scarcely could have imagined. For just as wildly unpredictable democratic reforms have swept Eastern Bloc nations, so too has 1990 become a season of dramatic transformation in San Diego politics.

Five San Diego-area legislators--four state Assembly members and one congressman--face serious opposition in the June 5 primary. These races have created the most competitive primary here in recent political history.

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And collectively, the contests have made San Diego County a compelling departure from the norm across the state, where primary challenges against incumbents typically are races more in name than in fact.

“There’s never been anything like this in San Diego--it’s totally unprecedented,” said former Democratic Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin.

Those facing tough contests are U.S. Rep. Jim Bates and Assemblymen Pete Chacon and Steve Peace--all Democrats--and Republican Assemblywomen Sunny Mojonnier and Tricia Hunter.

With the exception of Hunter, who is running in her first reelection campaign after winning a special election last October, the challenges to the incumbents represent the first serious primary opposition they have faced during terms in office stretching from seven to 20 years.

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Theories abound as to why primary contests that previously were little more than electoral formalities have suddenly become competitive.

Incumbents’ alleged ethical transgressions--Mojonnier, Chacon and Bates were the subjects of official investigations recently--galvanized several of the challengers.

And Hunter’s advocacy of abortion rights in her conservative, heavily Republican district all but guaranteed that she would draw opposition, as she has, from an anti-abortion foe.

Most challengers also hope to capitalize on what they perceive as growing public dissatisfaction with incumbents in general, a disdain they attribute to recent scandals in Sacramento and Washington.

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Among the threatened incumbents, Mojonnier, Chacon and Bates--in that order--are viewed by political observers as the most vulnerable, largely because each has been buffeted by serious ethical charges that compounded existing questions about their effectiveness.

Hunter and Peace, while both facing credible challengers, are expected to survive, barring disastrous last-minute blunders on their part. But even in these two races, it is a measure of the changed realities of San Diego politics that any uncertainty surrounds the outcome.

Hunter’s opponent is Connie Youngkin, a leader of Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion group that stages regular protests in front of abortion clinics. For her part in one demonstration, Youngkin was convicted of trespassing and faces a six-month sentence--creating the prospect that she could be in jail at some point this year. Undaunted, Youngkin has said: “First I go to jail, then I go to Sacramento. . . . Some of them go to Sacramento and then go to jail.”

Peace, meanwhile, has drawn two primary opponents--lawyers Darrel Vandeveld and Robert Garcia. The incumbent’s abrasive style was cited by both as a factor in their decision to run against him. But Peace’s fund raising has outpaced his two foes’ by a more than 2-1 ratio, and Vandeveld has been put on the defensive by allegations that optometrists who wanted to do business with the 15,000-member retail clerk’s union headed by his father were asked to donate $500 each to his campaign.

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In a sign of Mojonnier’s potential weakness, she has three GOP challengers--former Del Mar Mayor Ronnie Delaney, La Jolla businesswoman Fay McGrath and Poway school board member Stan Rodkin--in her bid for nomination for a fifth two-year Assembly term. Her opponents’ hopes have been buoyed by a series of ethics-related controversies plaguing Mojonnier, an Encinitas resident.

In February, for instance, she agreed to pay a $13,200 fine for double-billing the state and her campaign committee for business trips, as well as for using political donations to pay for fashion and beauty treatments for her staff. Along with other state legislators, she also was criticized this year for routinely using state-paid sergeants-at-arms for personal tasks, such as chauffeuring her children and escorting her home after evening parties.

An issue from Mojonnier’s last campaign--her 1987 acceptance of a $10,000 speaking fee from the California Police Officers Assn. after leaving her sickbed to vote for a new Los Angeles prison--also could have a lingering effect. Though the state attorney general’s office ruled that the award did not violate state law, opponents argue that it at least raised ethical questions.

“If not dead meat, Mojonnier’s close to it,” said political consultant Tom Shepard.

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Though acknowledging that she takes her primary challenge “very, very seriously,” Mojonnier said she is confident that she will retain her party’s nomination--a scenario based in part on the hope that her three opponents will splinter the anti-incumbent vote.

Former Del Mar Mayor Delaney concedes the likelihood of a divided vote, but adds that the four-candidate race also reflects “the strong level of dissatisfaction with the incumbent.”

Political consultant Jim Johnston argues that Mojonnier’s own woes will make it difficult for her to separate herself from what he predicts will be a strong anti-incumbent backlash.

“Even if you conduct yourself with all due ethical and personal decorum, this is a tough time to be an incumbent because of the kind of news that’s been coming out of Sacramento and Washington,” Johnston said. “If you’re caught up in one of these messes yourself, you’re obviously in much deeper trouble. I think the dissatisfaction has built up to the point that people feel it’s time for a change, that whomever they put in has to be better.”

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Both Chacon and Bates face similar problems in their Democratic primaries.

The 64-year-old Chacon, first elected to the Assembly in 1970, in recent years has hinted that he was contemplating retirement, an inclination that some within his party privately suggest he should have followed. A recent California Journal article ranked Chacon next to last in overall effectiveness in the Assembly, and he has drawn increasing criticism for spending less time in San Diego than he does in a home he owns in Placerville, near Sacramento.

Another controversy surrounding Chacon involves his acceptance of $7,500 in honorariums from a check cashers’ organization in 1988 after he abandoned legislation opposed by the group. More than half of the money--$4,000--came on the same day that the bill was shelved. Though the state attorney general’s office concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge Chacon with a bribe--he insists the timing of the payments was a coincidence and did not prompt him to drop the bill--his critics contend that the gift places Chacon in the same murky ethical waters as Mojonnier.

Chacon downplays his opposition as “part of the democratic process” and claims to be “invigorated” by the challenge.

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The toughest of his two foes is expected to be Celia Ballesteros, who enjoys high name recognition and fund-raising capability as a former San Diego city councilwoman. Ballesteros, in fact, out-raised Chacon, $41,559 to $27,549, from Jan. 1 to March 17. And she is expected to receive an additional fund-raising boost from abortion-rights groups that oppose Chacon’s consistent anti-abortion record.

The third candidate in the 79th District Democratic race--John Warren, the editor of a black community newspaper--is regarded as a long shot. But the votes he siphons from the two front-runners could affect the outcome.

Bates, meanwhile, was widely seen as vulnerable in the general election because of his rebuke by the House Ethics Committee last year for sexually harassing two female staff members. What came as a surprise was the serious primary challenge the four-term Democrat faces from Byron Georgiou, a lawyer and longtime party activist.

Arguing that Bates’ sanction by the Ethics Committee has severely weakened him, Georgiou contends that the Democrats will have a better chance of retaining Bates’ seat in November if the incumbent is not the party’s nominee. Few Democratic leaders, however, share his analysis.

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“I think Byron may be burning some bridges,” said San Diego Democratic Party Chairman Irma Munoz. “Any time you challenge your own party’s incumbent, there are consequences.”

Nonetheless, many feel that even if Georgiou loses his uphill campaign, he probably will not have irreparably harmed his long-term political goals--a belief founded on the premise that, increasingly, candidates have little to fear from party leaders’ displeasure.


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