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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / 72ND ASSEMBLY DISTRICT : 2 Democrats Try to Get Foot in GOP Door

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Knock, knock . . . knock, knock, knock.

The front door of a townhouse in Stanton swings open and the smell of dinner on the stove wafts outside. The television is tuned to the evening news and the dog is barking.

“Hi, my name is Tom Umberg, and I’m running for state Assembly,” the Democrat says, handing a brochure to the woman who answers the door.

“Cute family,” she says, looking at the brochure.

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In Santa Ana, Democrat Jerry Yudelson talks to children playing in their front yards, a man working under his car in a driveway. He also rings lots of doorbells.

“Hello,” he yells through a front porch screen. “Hello, are you Jenny? I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a Democrat running for state Assembly.”

These are the political trenches where votes are earned with smiles and handshakes instead of glitzy television ads. The candidates get further with sneakers than they do with power ties. And they are more likely to be talking over the sounds of crying babies and barking dogs than over cheers at a rally.

“This is retail politics,” said Larry Remer, Yudelson’s campaign manager. “Ten votes here, 20 votes there. They’re going to meet nearly all of their voters.”

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In less than a month, Democratic voters in the 72nd Assembly District will choose either Yudelson or Umberg to represent their best chance this year of winning a single Democratic seat in Republican-dominated Orange County.

The 72nd District, which includes parts of Garden Grove, Westminster and Anaheim as well as Stanton and Santa Ana, is the only Assembly seat in Orange County where Democratic registered voters outnumber Republicans. It is now represented by freshman Republican Assemblyman Curt Pringle.

So far, both Democratic campaigns have struggled with the difficult task of meeting as many voters in the district as possible. Experts figure this is a close race that is likely to come down to the wire on Election Day, June 5.

What has distinguished the candidates so far is not the issues as much as the chemistry of their campaigns. Umberg, by far, has the longest list of endorsements from major Democratic leaders in Orange County and statewide, while Yudelson has focused on local community groups.

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Yudelson’s major asset is that he has been working in the district since last fall as an activist on some of the area’s most pressing issues.

Yudelson has marched with mobile-home owners seeking protection of their tenant rights, and he has organized neighborhood meetings in his living room against malathion spraying. It was Yudelson who filed a complaint in Sacramento that caused state officials to hold a public hearing in Orange County on the safety of malathion spraying.

“What will win this in the final analysis is that Jerry is what he is--he is a fighter for all of us,” Remer said. “I have a candidate who has been a non-stop activist in the community, so we have fashioned our campaign around that.”

Umberg got a later start in the race. A former federal prosecutor, he was prohibited by law from campaigning until he resigned from his job in February. Umberg, however, has been endorsed by almost all of the Orange County Democratic chairmen, going back to 1968, except the current one, who is backing Yudelson.

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Umberg is also supported by 16 Democratic Assembly members and two state senators. Yudelson has not been endorsed by any Assembly member and only one state senator, Democrat John Garamendi of Walnut Grove.

“There are a number of state legislators who think I would do a good job,” Umberg said. “They looked at Jerry and they took a look at me, and they made a decision between the two of us.”

As a result, Umberg is expected to have the most money in the primary, probably slightly more than $100,000.

Yudelson, though, is planning a Hollywood fund-raiser Tuesday that is scheduled to include Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, several television celebrities and Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, whose life story was told in the book and movie “Born on the Fourth of July.” Kovic considered but rejected a campaign against Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), whose district overlaps the 72nd Assembly District.

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Yudelson ran against Dornan in 1988, but neither he nor Umberg has ever been elected to any office.

Yudelson, 46, is an environmental consultant who advises businesses on the use of alternate energy sources, such as solar power. Umberg, 35, was a federal prosecutor in Orange County for the last two years, specializing in drug- and gang-related crimes. Previously, he was a captain in the Army serving in Korea and Europe.

Other Orange County races this year have focused on abortion or the environment, transportation or ethics. In the 72nd District, however, there is no arguing that the No. 1 issue is crime. It is emphasized in the candidates’ literature and in every stop they make while walking door to door.

On the issues relating to crime, the candidates are remarkably similar.

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Both support the death penalty, the ban on assault rifles and the requirement of a 15-day waiting period on the purchase of weapons so authorities can conduct a background investigation.

Both candidates also said they believe current sentencing laws are tough enough--they’re just not being enforced adequately. Both also called for more money to build new jails.

And neither has a position on Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy’s proposed Safe Streets Initiative, which would raise the sales tax by half a cent to pay for more law enforcement, judges and drug education.

On other issues, the candidates are also similar. Both support a woman’s right to abortion and both favor public funding for low-income women seeking abortion.

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On transportation, Umberg said he has not decided whether to support Proposition 111 on the June ballot, which calls for a nine-cent tax on gasoline to pay for road and mass transit improvements. Yudelson supports the measure.

Umberg also does not have a position on the so-called Big Green initiative, a sweeping environmental measure that would regulate pesticide, offshore oil drilling and toxic waste and would create an elected position for a state environmental chief. Yudelson said he is a strong supporter of the initiative, which is expected to be on the November ballot.

The No. 2 issue in the 72nd district is probably malathion spraying, since the district has already been targeted seven times this year by helicopter applications of the pesticide. Both candidates said they support a ban on the aerial spraying.


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