Assemblywoman Cathie Wright on Tuesday threw the first punch in what promises to be a bloody campaign for the 19th state Senate District, challenging her chief opponent Marian W. La Follette over her ballot designation as a "retired legislator."
Wright and La Follette are considered the front-runners in the June 2 Republican primary for the seat being vacated by state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita), which represents much of Ventura County, the Santa Clarita Valley and the northern San Fernando Valley, including Northridge, Granada Hills, Porter Ranch and Chatsworth. Fillmore Councilman Roger Campbell is also vying for the GOP nomination.
The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Henry Phillip Starr, a Bell Canyon lawyer, in the November election.
Republican strategists predict that Wright and La Follette, who often took swipes at each other when they were neighboring assemblywomen in the 1980s, will resort to tough campaign tactics in the Senate race.
John Theiss, Wright's campaign manager, said Tuesday that the Simi Valley assemblywoman has asked the secretary of state to deny La Follette's ballot designation because it is misleading to voters. The designation, those words printed on the ballot beneath candidates' names to describe their occupations, also lists La Follette as a businesswoman.
Under state election guidelines, candidates are allowed only to list either their current profession or the principal occupation of the past year. Theiss said the guidelines prohibit La Follette from referring to herself as a "retired legislator" because she has not served as an assemblywoman since 1990.
La Follette served in the Assembly from 1980 to 1990, when she retired to care for her late husband who was then undergoing treatment for cancer. La Follette said she has been busy for the past two years managing properties that she and her late husband acquired.
"She cannot use the term 'retired' if in fact she has another job," Theiss said. "She's got to play by the rules."
La Follette, who lives in Thousand Oaks, said she had not been contacted by the secretary of state's office about her ballot designation. She said she was surprised that there might be a problem because her attorney and campaign consultant had looked into the matter and assured her that it was OK.
But Melissa Warren, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, said a letter was sent to La Follette on Monday stating that her designation was "impermissible" for the reasons that Theiss cited. The letter advised La Follette to contact state officials immediately about submitting an alternative ballot designation, Warren said. The secretary of state was reacting to Wright's complaint, she said.
La Follette will have three days after receiving the letter to provide a new designation or lose her right to have any designation on the ballot, Warren said. But it doesn't threaten to remove her name from the ballot, she said.
La Follette said she will do whatever is appropriate. "We certainly will comply with the law," she said.
Theiss said it was only coincidental that Wright's challenge of La Follette's ballot designation was made public on the same day that La Follette held a celebration to coincide with the opening of her campaign headquarters in Thousand Oaks.
"I wasn't invited, so I didn't know she was having her thing tonight," he said. "Let the games begin."
Theiss said Wright was tied up in meetings Tuesday and thus unavailable for comment.
La Follette commented:
"I don't know what to expect from them. They're really getting desperate."
La Follette said that dropping the reference to her legislative experience actually may help her in the voting booth. "I think there are a lot of people right now not trusting incumbents," she said, pointing out that Wright is running on her record of 12 years in the Assembly.
Wright's supporters have suggested that La Follette will have to defend against charges of "carpetbagging" because she recently moved from her home in Orange County to Thousand Oaks to run against her.
La Follette lived in Northridge for years and moved to Orange County 15 months ago to be closer to the hospital where her late husband, John, was receiving chemotherapy for cancer. He died in December, 1990, and La Follette bought a house in Corona del Mar so that her two sons, who live in Newport Beach, would be nearby to comfort her.
In turn, La Follette has raised the issue of Wright's integrity, for her efforts to intervene with authorities on behalf of her daughter, who was facing jail for running up 27 traffic tickets.
It is not uncommon for the secretary of state to receive inquiries about candidates' ballot designations, Warren said. "We had one candidate in 1990 who put on his ballot that he was a 'peon,' " Warren said. "He was able to prove to our satisfaction that he was indeed one, and so we accepted the designation."