Political newcomer Bill Morrow has scrambled into contention in the Republican primary for the hotly contested 73rd Assembly District seat on the strength of a hefty campaign war chest, including $20,000 from a group that opponents say aims to pack the Legislature with conservative Christians.
Morrow, who makes no secret of his own traditional Christian beliefs, has received a pair of $10,000 contributions from Allied Business PAC, a political action committee that includes Irvine developer Howard Ahmanson.
The Mission Viejo-based group has raised $235,000 this year and has contributed more than $175,000 so far to a slate of about a dozen conservative candidates throughout the state, including Orange County Republicans Curt Pringle in the 68th Assembly District race and Jo Ellen Allen in the 69th Assembly District race.
Two leading contenders for the Republican nomination in the 73rd District, Dana Point Mayor Mike Eggers and Laguna Niguel Councilwoman Patricia C. Bates, charged Wednesday that Allied Business PAC is trying to swing the election for Morrow.
"It's money from special interests," Bates said. "I think the bottom line in this race was that everyone said they wanted a citizen legislator. Donations of this magnitude certainly say something different. It tells me that someone is trying to buy a race."
Eggers went even further, suggesting that the PAC is attempting to put enough hard-line conservatives in Sacramento to ensure that Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Brea), whose own campaign has loaned $20,000 to Morrow, can regain his leadership role. Johnson is among several conservative legislators known as "the cavemen" who are supporting Morrow.
"The cavemen are scared," Eggers said. "The ones who believe it should be politics as usual are scared to death that their handpicked boy isn't going to make it. So they figure they're going to buy the election."
Johnson did not return a phone call Wednesday, but in an interview last week, the longtime Republican assemblyman who served as minority party leader from 1988 through 1991 said he is "not plotting or scheming" to regain his former post.
Morrow, meanwhile, turned the tables on Bates and Eggers, saying that their charges are "the bickering and complaints of career politicians."
"It sounds to me from the venom with which Mr. Eggers speaks that he's resentful of where I've come from," said Morrow, an attorney and former Marine Corps officer who spent a few years in Sacramento in the late 1980s as a legislative aide. "No, I haven't had a steppingstone career. I haven't been a city councilman, I haven't been mayor. No, I'm not a good old boy."
It remained unclear Wednesday just how much money Morrow's campaign has raised. The candidate's latest campaign disclosure statement, which was due last week, has not been filed, and officials in the Morrow camp claimed that the tardiness was because of a sudden switch in the campaign's treasurer.
But those same officials said Morrow has raised upward of $150,000. If so, Morrow would have garnered more than double that of his nearest competitor, Eggers, who has raised about $65,000.
Several candidates in the race for the 73rd Assembly District, which sprawls across southern Orange and northern San Diego counties, said they didn't doubt that Morrow might have that much money, judging from the number of campaign mailers he has dispatched recently, including several taking tough stands on illegal immigration.
Eggers said he doubts that Morrow will turn in his financial disclosure statement before Tuesday's election, suggesting that "he's hiding" who is funding his campaign.
"They're all right-wingers," Eggers said. "It's one thing to be conservative. It's another thing to be rabid. Obviously, they're foaming. They're foaming so much they're opening the checkbooks."
Morrow, who faces a $10-a-day fine for failing to turn in his financial disclosure statement on time, said he isn't concealing anything, including his Christian beliefs.
"I'm up front about it," he said. "I'm certainly not hiding the fact that I am a Christian and a conservative."
Morrow also said he is proud of his conservative Republican supporters, saying he earned their backing by being a staunch anti-tax advocate. He also said he has never talked to Johnson about the Republican leadership, arguing that "he's supported my campaign because he knows I'll be the strongest fighter against taxes. That's all it is."
He also blasted Eggers, saying the Dana Point mayor "is a fine one to be talking about special interests" since he has gotten at least $17,500 from various doctors' groups. Eggers, however, said he received the campaign money because of his plans to push to cut insurance fraud and streamline government paperwork the medical community handles.
With only days remaining before the primary, the race among the eight candidates for the Republican nomination basically remains a toss-up.
But officials within several of the campaigns say that polling data shows Bates, Eggers and Morrow distancing themselves from the rest of the field, although Carlsbad Mayor Claude (Bud) Lewis remains within striking distance and San Juan Capistrano attorney Carlos Negrete could be a factor because of a last-minute, $60,000 loan he made to himself.