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Judge Rules for Umberg in Battle Over Ballot Designation : Election: Curt Pringle loses challenge to keep Democrat from being described as ‘assistant U.S. attorney.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Democratic Assembly candidate Thomas Umberg won the first skirmish Wednesday in his battle to unseat incumbent Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) when a Sacramento County judge ruled that Umberg may use the ballot designation “assistant U.S. attorney,” even though he resigned last January.

Superior Court Judge Horace E. Cecchettini heard arguments for more than two hours before dismissing the lawsuit filed by backers of Pringle, who claimed that Umberg’s chosen title was no longer accurate and was likely to mislead and influence “tens of thousands” of voters in the Nov. 6 election. They wanted Umberg to use the more general designation of “attorney at law” instead.

“The denomination ‘assistant U.S. attorney’ has a special meaning,” said James R. Parrinello, attorney for Pringle’s supporters. “There is a certain symbolism that people attach to it that is much more favorable than ‘attorney at law.’ ”

Democrats are hoping the symbolism will help Umberg reclaim for the party the 72nd District seat--encompassing Stanton and parts of Garden Grove, Westminster, Santa Ana and Anaheim--that once was their territory. Pringle won the seat two years ago by just 867 votes in an election that continues to spark controversy because of the Republican Party’s use of uniformed security guards at polling places.

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Assembly Democrats have made Pringle’s defeat a top priority in the November legislative races.

Pringle said the judge’s decision would certainly benefit Umberg’s campaign. “I’ll make sure those tens of thousands of voters know that he’s deliberately misleading voters about his present principal occupation,” Pringle said. “I think ethics in politics is a very substantive issue.”

Umberg said he was not surprised that Pringle plans to continue hammering away on the issue.

“That’s par for the course,” Umberg said. “I want to talk about things like education, crime control, why we haven’t had an effective criminal justice system, and he’s talking about things like my ballot designation.”

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Umberg left his job as a federal prosecutor Jan. 31, and declared his intention to run for Assembly the following day. Federal law prohibits government employees from engaging in partisan politics, and the California secretary of state’s office traditionally allows candidates who leave a job to run for office to use their last job title as a ballot designation.

But state law also forbids candidates to use ballot designations that reflect “prior status.” Angela (Bay) Buchanan, a Republican candidate for state treasurer last June, was not allowed to use the designation “retired United States Treasurer,” a job she hadn’t held in 10 years.

Pringle and his supporters tried to avail themselves of that law and pointed to Umberg’s current, part-time employment with a private law firm as evidence that he no longer should be able to use his prosecutor’s mantle.

Judge Cecchettini, however, held that in Umberg’s case, the “assistant U.S. attorney” designation was not a prior status but rather his “principal calling,” and therefore not misleading.

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