A political earthquake of unprecedented magnitude could jolt the California House delegation this year with voters sending as many as two dozen new faces to Congress and Republicans hoping to seize a majority of seats for the first time since the 1950s.
The shake-up threatens the future of at least nine well-entrenched California congressmen who traditionally have not had to worry about getting reelected.
“It could be a very volatile year,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), the third-ranking Republican in the House. “Any incumbent who has any kind of opposition this year that is halfway credible is clearly not safe.”
The anticipated turnover can be attributed to a series of political tremors: once-in-a-decade redrawing of district lines, a rising anti-incumbent mood, fallout from the House bank scandal and a formidable field of women candidates running as agents of change.
The recent rioting in Los Angeles only served to exacerbate a capricious electorate that will have its say in the June 2 primaries.
The most competitive races on Tuesday are expected to take place in a record 15 open seats. Eight districts were vacated by retiring incumbents, including four House members who are running for the Senate. The other seven districts were added as part of the reapportionment process to reflect the state’s 6.1 million new residents during the past decade. A 16th open seat was created when Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Chula Vista) opted to move to the nearby Republican-dominated 51st District.
The 15 new California members of the House--not including challengers who could upset some incumbents--will exceed the entire congressional delegations of 42 states.
For all of the upheaval, however, the highly polarized California landscape continues to produce new districts along such lopsided partisan lines that many incumbents still cling to secure seats. At least 15 Capitol Hill lawmakers who represent solidly Democratic areas in Los Angeles, conservative Republican enclaves in Orange and San Diego counties and liberal suburban communities in the San Francisco Bay Area have little or no opposition this year.
Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), an 11-term legislator and among the biggest abusers in the House bank scandal, is considered a shoo-in because two-thirds of the voters in his district are registered Democrats. Dellums has no primary opposition and probably will face only an obscure Peace and Freedom Party candidate in the November general election.
Usually, incumbents enjoy such overwhelming advantages in elections--from bulging campaign war chests to free mailing privileges--that they have little reason to fear defeat. In the past decade, only four sitting California congressmen have been ousted from office.
But this is not a normal year.
“I think California is up for grabs in every sense,” said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who faces a stiff challenge himself in the fall. “There are a lot fewer people resting comfortably.”
Said California Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run): “You may think incumbent is a nine-letter word, but it really is a four-letter word.”
The anti-incumbent sentiment among voters was fueled by a midnight pay raise, abuses involving controversial perks and the widely held belief that Congress is so deadlocked by partisan politics that it is incapable of acting on the economy, health care, education and other critical issues. Political experts agree that voter Angst is even worse in California because of the state’s worsening fiscal crisis.
How voter frustration with Capitol Hill gridlock will play out in the election booth is anybody’s guess. This is particularly true now that the riots and the rebuilding of race relations and inner-city communities have advanced to the top of the political agenda.
“All (other issues) are on the back burner right now,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate at the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School. “So much is going to depend on how (the riot) plays out, how incumbents respond to this tragedy (and) whether or not the voters have any interest at all in the elections.”
In the short run, pro-law enforcement messages rising from the ashes of riot-torn Los Angeles are expected to benefit conservative candidates in close primary battles, political experts say.
“My first reaction candidly is that this kind of unrest and subsequent law-and-order desire helps Republicans,” said Phil Angelides, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “And at this moment I can tell you Republicans are counting their votes.”
Indeed, California Republicans are expected to make solid gains under the new redistricting lines crafted by the state Supreme Court. Republicans now trail Democrats by a 26-19 margin, but political analysts for both parties say they would not be surprised if the GOP picks up at least seven seats for a 26-26 split.
In all, 373 candidates--believed to be a record for any single state--filed to run for 52 seats in the upcoming primary.
Some districts are expected to be filled from the ranks of more than 30 women who are running as Republicans and Democrats for House seats from California. They are seen as riding a host of hot-button issues--abortion rights, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and a male-dominated Congress--that have energized voters to rally behind women candidates.
“The polls suggest it is a damned good time to be a female candidate,” said Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
This is particularly true in California, where 53% of the registered voters are women, based on a look at multiple Los Angeles Times polls, and Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are each seeking separate U.S. Senate seats.
“California, as usual, is leading the way in terms of presenting us with an embarrassment of riches to the point where we have outstanding women running against one another in some cases,” said Harriett Woods, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus in Washington. “There is a new pool of well-qualified women who are prepared to take the risk of running for federal office and can put together the resources to win. That is a big change from 10 years ago.”
The California congressional delegation now has three women--Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Boxer (D-Greenbrae).
This year, the number of California women in the House could easily double, if not triple, political experts say.
Among those considered to have good chances are Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), daughter of the retiring Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), and Patricia Malberg, a former community college teacher who is unopposed in the 4th District Democratic primary and will try again to upset Rep. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin) after narrowly losing to him in 1990.
Two high-profile primary races could pit women candidates against one another in November. Maureen Reagan, the former President’s daughter, and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores are front-runners in a crowded field of 10 candidates competing for the Republican primary in the new 36th District along the southern Los Angeles County coastline. Wealthy attorney Jane Harman and Ada Unruh, daughter of the late state treasurer and former Assembly Speaker, head a list of eight Democrats.
The other matchup of women candidates could occur in the Central Valley, where Democrat Patricia Garamendi, wife of state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, and Republican Sandy Smoley, a 20-year San Joaquin County supervisor, are considered favorites in the 11th District.
Several Democratic women are mounting strong campaigns in crowded primaries throughout the state. These include Los Angeles school board member Leticia Quezeda, San Diego attorney Lynn Schenk, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gloria Ochoa, San Mateo County Supervisor Anna Eshoo and Compton school board member Lynn Dymally, who is attempting to succeed her father, Mervyn Dymally.
In Orange County, retired Superior Court Judge Judith A. Ryan has created havoc in Republican circles by mounting a long-shot bid to defeat Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).
The Republican primary that is the talk of GOP followers nationwide is in the new 22nd District, covering Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), first elected to Congress in 1974 as part of the Watergate class of reformers, left his hometown district at the urging of Gov. Pete Wilson and the White House to avoid a nasty intra-party tussle with Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley). But the Republican strategy backfired when Lagomarsino was subsequently challenged by Michael R. Huffington, a multimillionaire Montecito businessman and loyal Republican donor who served as a Reagan Administration deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Now Lagomarsino appears in deep trouble, with Huffington running as an outsider and pouring part of his considerable wealth into the campaign. So far, Huffington has spent nearly $2.2 million of his own money--more than any House challenger nationwide, according to a recent Federal Election Commission report.
While Lagomarsino apparently is the only House member in serious jeopardy during the primary, other Southern California incumbents could encounter surprise challenges.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego) may be vulnerable given his 399 overdrafts totaling $129,225 in the House bank scandal. Hunter was unrepentant in acknowledging his involvement in the controversy; he has labeled himself an “industrial strength” overdrafter and at one point went around his district displaying his overdrafts on a table.
Other California incumbents who face primary opponents and could be harmed by the bank scandal include Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), 19 overdrafts, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach), eight overdrafts. Adding to his woes, Lagomarsino had three overdrafts.
The top House bank offenders in the California delegation appear safe from any serious challenges. These are Dellums, with 851 overdrafts; Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), 434 overdrafts; Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), 119 overdrafts; Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), 99 overdrafts, and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), 67 overdrafts.
Republican officials said they would have fielded candidates against Dellums and Waxman if the California filing deadline had not elapsed before the list of House bank offenders was released.
But this does not mean House members are taking the bad-check affair lightly.
Even House members who did not write a single overdraft say voters are demanding explanations.
Fazio said he repeatedly fielded queries during a recent parade through the town of Red Bluff from spectators asking how many checks he had bounced.
“I spent the whole time yelling back and forth to people,” Fazio said. " . . . I felt I should have had a sign on the car: No Bad Checks.”
That is precisely what Rep. David Dreier (R-LaVerne) has done while riding in parades in his San Gabriel Valley district.
“I felt it necessary to do that,” Dreier said. “I’m convinced there are people out there who believe that I am marketing cocaine out of the House post office, kiting checks and have never paid a restaurant bill in my life.”
SNAPSHOT OF RACES: A graphic look at state congressional contests. A28