CONGRESSIONAL ELECTIONS 45TH DISTRICT : Ryan Races the Clock in His Bid to Make Hunter Defend Himself


From one perspective, write-in congressional candidate Hewitt Fitts Ryan is engaged in a politically difficult endeavor in an effort to get a chance to try the politically impossible.

Distressed that no Democrat filed to run against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) this fall, Ryan--whose brother was a congressman and whose father was an acquaintance of Franklin D. Roosevelt--has launched a late, long-shot effort to gain enough write-in votes in next week’s Democratic primary to qualify for the November ballot.

If at least 2,250 Democratic voters write in Ryan’s name Tuesday, the 61-year-old psychiatrist, who ran against Hunter four years ago, will be listed on the November ballot. Otherwise, Hunter will face only minor-party opposition as he seeks a sixth two-year term this fall in the heavily Republican 45th District.

His major obstacle, Ryan readily concedes, is that, with only days remaining to the June 5 primary, there probably are not 2,250 Democrats who even know he is running in the San Diego-Imperial County district.


“The challenge is to get out the message in a very short time,” Ryan said. “You’re asking people to vote for you when there’s nothing on the ballot or at the polls to indicate that you’re even running. It won’t be easy.”

Even if Ryan overcomes the immediate hurdle and manages to get his name on the ballot, the Point Loma resident has no illusions about his chances in November--a lesson in political reality stemming from personal experience. In 1986, Ryan lost in a 77%-21% landslide in the district, where Republicans now hold a 50%-37% edge among registered voters.

To state the obvious, when a congressional candidate can double the percentage of votes he received in his last campaign and still lose by a 3-2 margin, there probably is no pressing need to start searching for housing in Washington.

“I understand the situation--I’m a realist,” Ryan said. “But I think that even in a lopsided district like the 45th, it’s important for someone to take the Democratic position. Plus, I don’t think any incumbent should run uncontested. That’s not good for the district and it’s not good for the system.”

The son of a liberal Democratic family from Albion, N. Y., Ryan proudly embraced a New Deal Democrat image in his 1986 race, showing no reluctance to be tagged with “the ‘L’ word” at a time when many other politicians eschew that ideological description.

Ryan recalls fondly that during his childhood, Roosevelt and his wife were guests at his parents’ home on several occasions. His father, a one-time Upstate New York Democratic county chairman, was appointed to the New York State Court of Appeals by Roosevelt when he was governor, and, as a teen-ager, Ryan attended Roosevelt’s fourth presidential inauguration.

His late oldest brother, William, moved to Manhattan and was elected to Congress, where he became the first House member to vote against American involvement in Vietnam. Also in the mid-1960s, his youngest brother was a U. S. Justice Department lawyer who helped enforce the Civil Rights Act under President Johnson.

Although Ryan pursued a career in medicine, he remained active in local politics, serving as a Democratic central committeeman in Denver before moving to San Diego in the early 1970s.


Ryan’s late entry into next month’s race mirrors his 1986 campaign, when he filed on the last day because he feared no other Democrat planned to run against Hunter. In the end, two other Democrats filed on the same day, but Ryan went on to handily win the three-candidate primary to earn the dubious privilege of running against the heavily favored Hunter.

This year, under the impression that another Democrats planned to mount a write-in campaign, Ryan took out candidacy papers only last week when the other person failed to file for the race.

The fact that he is having to scramble to even get his name on the ballot this year, Ryan admits, underlines the relative weakness of the local Democratic Party. Party leaders, he says, “dropped the ball” by not lining up a candidate to oppose Hunter--a shortcoming attributable as much to any Democrat’s grim prospects in the district as to the distraction caused by the resignation of San Diego County Democratic Chairwoman Irma Munoz.

To make Democrats aware of his candidacy, Ryan has spoken to local Democratic clubs and taken out newspaper advertisements, and hopes that media coverage will help spread the word among the district’s 114,000 registered Democrats.


If he qualifies for the ballot, Ryan said, he hopes to use the fall campaign to challenge Hunter’s positions--and the Bush Administration’s policies--on a wide range of issues, including education, access to health care, AIDS research and the shift of defense funds to other domestic programs.

“Unless I’m on the ballot, Duncan Hunter won’t even have to answer questions,” Ryan said. “He’s certainly not going to be talking about that kind of stuff otherwise. If nothing else, he should have to stand up in debates and defend himself. I hope to force him to do that.”