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3 Democrats Weigh Race for New Seat in Congress : Elections: Jack O’Connell, Anita Perez Ferguson and Kevin Sweeney may run in the proposed 23rd District.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two prominent Democratic politicians and Ventura County’s leading environmental strategist are considering running for Congress in a newly proposed district that encompasses nearly all of Ventura County.

Assemblyman Jack O’Connell (D-Carpinteria), former congressional candidate Anita Perez Ferguson and Patagonia’s public affairs director, Kevin Sweeney, said Tuesday that they are seriously thinking about launching congressional campaigns.

The three Democrats are interested in the proposed 23rd Congressional District that would cover Carpinteria and all of Ventura County except for Thousand Oaks. The proposed district and newly drawn boundaries for state legislative districts are expected to be adopted by the state Supreme Court in late January.

The victor of a Democratic primary in June would probably face one of the county’s two incumbent congressmen in the November election.

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Reps. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) and Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) have been tossed into the new district. These two friends are now engaged in a test of political will to see who would move to avoid a fight during the Republican primary.

“If they want to fight it out, I’d personally hold their coats,” said O’Connell, a popular five-term assemblyman who earlier this year rose to the leadership position of Assembly speaker pro tem.

O’Connell said Congress holds the allure of a new challenge.

“You are dealing not only with national but international issues in a much larger arena,” O’Connell said. “I always look forward to new challenges.”

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Under Proposition 140’s term limits, O’Connell only has four more years in the Assembly. He said he might also consider running for the state Senate seat held by Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) if Hart runs for Congress. Such a move would give O’Connell eight more years in the state Legislature.

Hart has said he is interested in running for Congress in an open district that covers nearly all of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

O’Connell said he knows that Hart “is not going to move” to the Ventura County district. “Gary and I are allies and friends and political confidants. We are never going to oppose each other.”

Ferguson, a Santa Barbara educator and former Hart aide, said she and her husband, Bill, are looking for a house in Ventura County so they can live in the newly proposed district.

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“I am very serious and want to run in that district,” Ferguson said. “I want to continue to pursue Lagomarsino or, if not him, Elton Gallegly.”

In 1990, Lagomarsino beat Ferguson 54% to 45% in the 19th Congressional District that includes the western half of Ventura County and all of Santa Barbara County.

“I polled 45.5% of the Ventura portion of the district,” Ferguson said. “That is really a good starting place.”

Under federal law, members of the House of Representatives do not have to live in their congressional districts. But those who do not often leave themselves vulnerable to charges by political rivals of being carpetbaggers.

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Sweeney, a spokesman for Patagonia and onetime aide to former presidential candidate Gary Hart of Colorado, said he is considering the congressional race as his first bid for public office. He said he plans to make a decision in the next few days.

“I really haven’t made up my mind,” Sweeney said. He said he plans to leave Patagonia, the Ventura-based outdoor clothing manufacturer, early next year to direct a new environmental group organized to protect the Sierra.

If he runs, Sweeney said it would be part of his personal campaign to rewrite the rules of political races that are often won by candidates who can raise the most money and successfully attack their opponents with negative political ads.

“I don’t think there are many politicians in Ventura County who have a compelling national message,” he said. “I think we need to elevate the stakes and the level of debate.”

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