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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS 79TH ASSEMBLY DISTRICT : Challengers Fight to Block Chacon’s Well-Worn Path to Assembly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one sense, next month’s Democratic primary in the 79th Assembly District began not in March when candidacy papers were filed but rather in 1984.

It was in that year that Assemblyman Peter Chacon (D-San Diego) first suggested that he planned to retire when his two-year term expired, piquing the interest of Democratic aspirants eager to succeed him in the county’s most heavily Democratic legislative district.

Chacon, however, ultimately chose to seek reelection, a decision that kept his would-be successors grumbling but on the sidelines--a scene that has been played out, with little variation, every two years since.

In recent years, Chacon’s vagueness about his future plans, combined with rumors perhaps initiated by those eager to see him retire, have made the will-he-or-won’t-he questions a popular biennial guessing game in political circles both here and in Sacramento. The fact that Chacon appeared to approach each recent reelection campaign not so much with enthusiasm as with reluctant acquiescence to party leaders’ wishes served only to fuel speculation that each term might be his last.

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That talk reached a crescendo when, with the 1990 campaign approaching, Chacon became ensnarled in a series of embarrassing inquiries into his ethics and overall effectiveness. Surely, many Democrats said privately, this would finally be the year when the 64-year-old Chacon would--or, some argued, should --call it a career after 10 terms.

But when Chacon again filed for reelection, an impatient Celia Ballesteros, a former San Diego City Councilwoman who flirted with Assembly campaigns several times in the late 1980s, decided to wait no longer for the incumbent’s voluntary retirement to create an opening.

Bucking conventional political wisdom, Ballesteros, along with a third candidate, newspaper editor John Warren, is seeking to deny Chacon renomination--a political rarity in San Diego, where incumbents typically attract only token challenges from the other major party and no opposition at all within their own party.

By challenging Chacon for next week’s Democratic nomination, Ballesteros--whose name recognition, fund-raising ability and years of community activism approach the incumbent’s--has presented him with his toughest political test since he won the seat in 1970. In a campaign that has grown increasingly acrimonious in its closing days, a short passage from one of Ballesteros’ mailers succinctly summarizes her hopes in the June 5 contest.

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“Peter Chacon keeps saying he’s going to retire,” the Ballesteros brochure says. “It’s time the public took him up on his offer.”

Professing to be “invigorated and energized” by the primary challenge, Chacon has launched his most aggressive and visible campaign in years, aided by two top political operatives of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). In addition to dusting off his own 20-year record for voters, Chacon also has tried to chip away at Ballesteros’ support by faulting her for running a “gutter campaign” and for her lack of specificity on most major issues.

“She has said or done nothing to show how she would address the problems of the district--or that even suggests that she knows what the problems and issues are,” Chacon said. “She just would like to be handed the job. Well, that isn’t going to happen.”

From Ballesteros’ perspective, such criticism merely represents Chacon’s attempt to deflect attention from his own considerable political liabilities. Indeed, even some of Chacon’s strongest supporters concede that he enters the primary with an uncommonly heavy load of political baggage--a situation that has allowed Ballesteros to make Chacon himself the issue in the campaign.

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“He criticizes me because he doesn’t want people to look at his own record, which is not a very good one,” said Ballesteros, a 58-year-old lawyer. “When I point out things that he himself has done, he says I’m being negative. Since when has the truth become mud-slinging?”

Warren, meanwhile, has struggled to dispel the perception that his long shot candidacy, weakened by his limited name-identification and financial resources, makes him little more than a spoiler unlikely to win himself but whose votes could affect the front runners’ finishing order.

The editor-publisher of Voice and Viewpoint, a black community newspaper, Warren admits to occasionally feeling like the third man in a two-candidate race in the 79th District, which extends from Lindbergh Field through downtown to North Park, stretching east to Lemon Grove and Spring Valley, and south to Bonita. The district, which also includes Southeast San Diego, Logan Heights, Paradise Hills and Encanto, has a 57%-31% Democratic registration edge, making the party’s nomination tantamount to election.

“There have been efforts to make this look like a Chacon-Ballesteros race,” said Warren, a 44-year-old former Washington, D.C., school board member who moved to San Diego in 1984. “The problem is, Ballesteros’ entire campaign deals with the sins of Pete Chacon, and Chacon is trying to rewrite history to make himself look good. I disagree with a lot of what Chacon has done, too, but that’s not the only thing to talk about in the campaign.”

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Voters’ judgment on the controversies swirling around Chacon, however, is expected to be a pivotal factor in the primary’s outcome. In an election year in which many campaign consultants predict there may be an unusually strong anti-incumbent backlash--a disdain they attribute to recent scandals in Sacramento and Washington--Chacon’s major obstacle may be that his own woes could make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate himself from that public dissatisfaction.

“Even if you conduct yourself with all due ethical and personal decorum, this is a tough time to be an incumbent,” said political consultant Jim Johnston, whose firm is uninvolved in the 79th District race. “If you’re caught up in one of these messes yourself, you’re obviously in much deeper trouble.”

Many of Chacon’s political problems are self-inflicted, beginning with the broad hints he has occasionally dropped about contemplating retirement. Those musings fostered the impression that Chacon’s interest in the job and the district had waned--a perception reinforced by the fact that his primary home is in Placerville, near Sacramento.

“The lesson here is that no legislator should ever mention to anybody that he’s considering retiring,” Chacon said. He has not seriously considered that option during his past two terms, Chacon said, “but people continue to mention it--particularly people who are political hopefuls.”

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Though he has drawn increasing criticism for spending far more time in Placerville than in San Diego, Chacon claims that he spends most weekends in San Diego and is “as engaged as ever” in district affairs.

“I’ve been married for 36 years and I value my marriage,” Chacon says. “One of the biggest challenges to marriage is separation. Instead of having my wife in San Diego and only seeing her on weekends, this way, we get to spend more time together.”

Chacon also has been thrown on the defensive by a recent California Journal article that ranked him next-to-last in overall effectiveness in the Assembly, and by questions about his acceptance of $7,500 from a check cashers’ organization in 1988 after he abandoned legislation opposed by the group.

Calling the California Journal ranking “totally subjective,” Chacon contends that he has been underestimated because he focuses on issues to “help the poor and minorities” that attract minimal press attention.

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The controversy involving the check cashing legislation, meanwhile, is detailed in a caustic, hard-hitting Ballesteros mailer titled “Ten Reasons Why Assemblyman Peter Chacon Has Embarrassed Us.” More than half of the $7,500 that Chacon received from the California Cash Checkers Assn.--$4,000--came on the same day that the bill, which would have capped the fees that check-cashing businesses can charge their customers, was shelved.

Though the state attorney general’s office concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge Chacon with accepting a bribe--he insists the timing of the payments was a coincidence and that a committee chairman, not he, scuttled the bill--his critics have charged that the episode at least raises serious ethical questions.

Bristling over what he calls Ballesteros’ “negative, false campaign,” Chacon has adamantly refused to participate in campaign debates, canceling one scheduled televised appearance only 20 minutes before it was taped. While Chacon says he has “no intention of providing a forum for her lies and character assassination,” his refusal to debate provided fodder for another Ballesteros brochure that asks rhetorically: “What does Peter Chacon have to hide?”

Viewing his 20-year career as his major asset--and hoping to refute the California Journal’s ranking--Chacon has polished his legislative record for voters’ consideration. In a brochure that bills Chacon as “The True Democrat"--a partisan twist on the “Real Republican” theme that Carol Bentley used successfully in her 1988 77th District race--the assemblyman underlines the myriad legislation that he has either sponsored or carried in areas ranging from education and health care to senior programs and crime.

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As highlights of his record, Chacon points to legislation that established bilingual education, produced low-income housing, created a toll-free hot line for runaway youths, outlawed the mandatory retirement age and developed a comprehensive prenatal care system. Chairman of the Assembly’s Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee, Chacon also has relentlessly but unsuccessfully pushed in recent years for election day voter registration and for district elections for all city councils and school board; the former, he says, would dramatically increase turnout, while the latter could enhance minority representation.

“I’ve done things my opponent has only talked about,” said Chacon, a former teacher and school administrator. “That’s why her negative tactics will be rejected. The voters have known me for 20 years. But they don’t know her and she doesn’t know them.”

Ballesteros, however, does have a long record of community and political activism throughout the 79th District. Half-jokingly describing herself as “walking proof that ‘Life Begins at 40,’ ” Ballesteros, after passing that personal milestone, went to college while operating a restaurant and raising four children. Later, she ran a law firm while serving in various local and state organizations--among them, the county’s Juvenile Justice Committee, the San Diego Citizens Interracial Committee and the California State University Board of Trustees, a post to which then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. appointed her.

In her first race for elective public office, she ran for the San Diego City Council in 1983, winning her district primary but losing the citywide runoff to Republican Uvaldo Martinez. Three years later, when Martinez resigned after pleading guilty to charges stemming from misuse of a city-issued credit card, Ballesteros was appointed to serve the final year of his term, with the proviso that she not seek election to the seat.

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Though her staff has prepared a list of nearly five dozen accomplishments from that year, Ballesteros’ performance drew mixed reviews both inside and outside City Hall.

Among other things, she takes credit for acquiring parks throughout her district, promoting commercial investment in Barrio Logan, updating community plans, obtaining funds to maintain the Centro Cultural de la Reza at its Balboa Park site, lobbying for funds for Route 125 in the South Bay and for advances on numerous other neighborhood projects. Displaying none of the political reticence of some of her colleagues, she also consistently spoke out on charges of police brutality and strongly backed proposals for civilian review boards to examine allegations of police misconduct.

But Ballesteros’ political savvy and skills as a back-room negotiator were often questioned--doubts that took deeper root when, in the closing days of her council tenure, she stumbled into a strategic blunder that allowed federal funds targeted for a community arts and cultural center in San Ysidro to be spent on projects in other council districts.

Community leaders and council members also complained that Ballesteros failed to adequately consult them or keep them apprised of her plans. “You never knew where she was coming from,” an aide to one council member said. “She wasn’t someone you wanted to have to count on in a 5-4 vote.”

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Some of Ballesteros’ former staffers attribute those problems to chronic disorganization--a situation that her defenders portray as the result of trying to do too much in the short time that she had at City Hall, but that others blame on simple forgetfulness on her part.

Beyond criticizing Chacon’s performance, Ballesteros has spoken largely in generalities and platitudes about her own policies. In her campaign appearances, she says that she would work to improve education and health care, spur economic development, reduce drug use and crime and to gain more state funding for San Diego--but has provided few specifics about how she hopes to do so.

One of Ballesteros’ major philosophical differences with Chacon--she supports abortion rights, while he opposes abortion--also could be a significant factor in the campaign, given that issue’s renewed political volatility in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision permitting states to curtail abortion rights.

The California Abortion Rights Action League has targeted Ballesteros’ campaign as one of its top three priorities statewide in next week’s primary, contributing several thousand dollars and staffing telephone banks designed to identify likely voters who support abortion rights. But while Ballesteros consultant Tom Shepard terms abortion “certainly one of the top three” issues in the race, Chacon argues that voters are more concerned with topics such as crime, housing and education.

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While Chacon and Ballesteros have drawn the spotlight in the race, Warren has run a low-key campaign heavy on idealism but short on cash and other resources. In stark contrast to both major candidates’ plans to spend up to $200,000 each, Warren had raised only about $4,800 as of two weeks ago.

Undeterred, Warren and his volunteers have doggedly campaigned door-to-door--"If you don’t have $50,000, you knock on 50,000 doors,” he says--and his thoughtful, articulate speeches rarely fail to impress audiences.

“I’m kind of an idealist, but I’d like to prove that people still can run for office based on qualifications,” said Warren, a former congressional staffer who also taught political science at Howard University in Washington. “If I can’t do that just because of my lack of money, then our whole system is a sham. If the spark catches and people start to believe, then it can happen. You can create your own reality. It may be naive, but I believe it.”


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