State Assemblyman Tom Umberg, Orange County's only Democrat in the Legislature, said Wednesday that he is planning a campaign next year to unseat state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.
Umberg, a former federal prosecutor, stopped short of officially launching his campaign, saying instead that he will form an exploratory committee and then make a final decision about the contest, probably in January.
He declined to rule out the possibility that he might seek reelection to his Garden Grove Assembly seat. But he said he is confident he will develop the support he needs to enter the race for attorney general.
"Quite frankly, I don't envision anything right now that would preclude me from announcing in January," Umberg said at a press conference Wednesday in Santa Ana. "But we are making sure my expectations (of support) are fulfilled."
If he enters the race, Umberg is expected to face San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith in the June Democratic primary. Smith, who has already said he will run, narrowly lost the attorney general's race to Lungren in 1990.
Umberg said he expects to have raised twice as much money as Smith by January. He also suggested in his press conference that the San Francisco prosecutor had already had his turn at a campaign for attorney general.
"The district attorney has run before and lost," Umberg said. "Most importantly, I think I offer an alternative to beat Dan Lungren."
Umberg won his first election to public office in 1990 when he unseated Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove). Ever since, he has been considered a rising star by many state Democratic leaders who believe his background as a moderate to conservative lawmaker might help expand the party's base.
Umberg, 38, enlisted in the Army after he graduated from UCLA, serving in Korea and Italy. He gained the rank of captain before he left the service in 1985. He is a major in the Army Reserve.
Following his military career, Umberg was appointed to the U.S. attorney's office in Santa Ana, where he spent three years prosecuting drug and gang cases as well as white collar and hate crimes. In his campaign literature, Umberg boasted of a 100% conviction rate on the cases he handled.
At his press conference, Umberg demonstrated that he has gained significant support among his Democratic colleagues in Sacramento. He distributed a list of endorsements from 28 state legislators, including Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
Umberg said he has received a lot of encouragement to run from statewide Democratic leaders. But at his press conference, he said he decided to run for office because Lungren has been "AWOL . . . when it comes to the war on crime in California."
To underscore his point, Umberg held the announcement at Fremont Elementary School in Santa Ana, where a 25-year-old man was critically wounded last Sunday in a drive-by shooting.
"It's clear that we're losing the battle against crime and the fear that it generates," he said. "Few, if any of us, feel safer today than we did four years ago. . . . It's because of this frustration with Lungren's lack of leadership that I am announcing today."
Joanne Stabler, Lungren's campaign manager, said the attorney general responded to Umberg's announcement Wednesday by saying: "Come on in, the water's fine." Stabler said Lungren is confident that his record in office makes him a strong candidate for reelection.
The reaction from Smith's campaign was much more pointed.
"Tom Umberg has a brief and relatively undistinguished record in the Assembly and a weak relationship with law enforcement leadership statewide," said Marc O'Hara, spokesman for the San Francisco prosecutor. "Right now, there is one A-team candidate in the race and Tom Umberg's announcement doesn't change that."
Umberg's campaign for statewide office would leave Orange County Democrats with a major challenge to retain his seat.
Umberg's 69th Assembly District in Santa Ana and Garden Grove is predominantly Democratic, but it has a reputation for electing Republicans. The same voters have helped put Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) in Congress and elected conservative Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) to the state Senate.
Umberg said Wednesday, however, he believes county Democrats have gained a foothold and will retain the seat.
"Things are changing here in Orange County," he said. "I don't think there will be a time again when there are no Democrats who hold elective office in Orange County. I suspect that whoever succeeds me will be a Democrat."