DECISION '94 : Battered, Bored Voters in O.C. Meet Ballot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are battered, worn out and, to some extent, bored.

Still, about half of Orange County's 1.1-million voters are likely to head for the polls June 7 to choose from a pack of candidates in almost three dozen races.

An inconsequential election?

Hardly.

Among the city, county, state and congressional races facing Orange County voters next week are contests for three of five seats on the Board of Supervisors--including two being vacated by incumbents. The results could place two women on the board for the first time. At the same time, a prominent Democratic candidate--Linda Moulton Patterson--is threatening to break the Republican hold on the nonpartisan board.

In another nonpartisan race that would normally receive little attention, voters will decide a judicial race in which the incumbent, Superior Court Judge Claude E. Whitney, is facing misconduct charges filed recently by the state Commission on Judicial Performance. He has one opponent.

Recorder Lee A. Branch--who was censured earlier this year by the Board of Supervisors for misconduct in the way he ran his office--faces a three-way challenge.

For Democrats and Republicans, their party primaries will provide voters an opportunity to register a protest against the status quo.

Orange County Republicans--usually counted on in the November general election to deliver the winning margins for their statewide nominees for governor and U.S. senator--will be watched to see if they cast a significant "protest" vote for computer entrepreneur Ron K. Unz against Gov. Pete Wilson, who has had a lukewarm relationship with party conservatives.

A big vote for Unz in Republican-dominated Orange County could be as embarrassing to Wilson as Patrick J. Buchanan's presidential bid was to incumbent President George Bush early in the 1992 campaign.

The Democrats, meanwhile, once again hope to field post-primary nominees who are strong enough to challenge the Republicans in the November General Election and break the GOP's hold on local legislative seats. Every congressional and state Legislature seat, except the one held by departing Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove), is in Republican hands.

In a year when voters want local and state public officials to do something to reduce crime and speed the economic recovery, the candidates have their work cut out for them, said Mark Baldassare, a social ecology professor at UC Irvine.

"I think that local voters continue to sense there's a void in leadership and they are still looking for leadership at the county level," Baldassare said, after recently concluding a Times Orange County poll of 600 voters.

"And I think there continues to be a lot of frustration about the state of the economy, which is going to be a serious problem for (Gov. Pete) Wilson in this election," Baldassare added. "Pete Wilson is going to have to do quite a bit of work to get the Republicans behind him here" in Orange County.

The poll showed Wilson would beat either Democrat front runner--Kathleen Brown or John Garamendi--in Orange County, but the governor's margin would not by sufficient to offset heavy voting by Democrats in Northern California and Los Angeles County.

Voter anger also set in at two city halls, where council members are targets of recall efforts because they cut fire services or raised taxes to balance budgets to meet expenses in a time of economic hardship.

In Westminster, firefighters are testing the strength of their union against three council members who voted to cut the Fire Department's budget. And in Fullerton, voters are being asked to recall three council members and the city clerk, as the result of citizen opposition to a 2% utility-tax increase.

Still, for all the frustration being voiced by local residents about incumbents and government, some local campaigns have found voters and contributors disinterested. When the usual wells for campaign funds dried up, several candidates loaned their own campaigns tens of thousands of dollars to "make something happen."

The 1.1-million citizens who are eligible to cast ballots next week represent no great surge in voter registration, according to figures released last week by the Registrar of Voters.

While the number of voters this year is 53,265 more than the total for the 1992 June primary, there will be 87,084 fewer eligible voters than for the November, 1992, presidential election--a drop off that usually occurs during gubernatorial election years. Turnout in recent June elections has been between 40% and 50%.

Neither party made significant gains in voter registration before the primary. Party affiliation is considered key in several central Orange County state Legislature and congressional races, where Democrats outnumber Republicans and the seats are expected to be competitive in November.

The Republicans face two critical Assembly primaries.

In one of the hottest local races, Republican voters could very well be choosing the successor to Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) in the 70th Assembly District. The district has the second highest Republican voter registration in the state and the GOP victor should have an edge in the November election.

Almost from the beginning of the campaign season, the three Republican hopefuls have bruised each other in a contest that has split the party's conservative faction.

In another intraparty struggle in the 69th Assembly District, Republican voters will be selecting a nominee to lead their party's effort to recapture in November the only local legislative seat held by a Democrat. Incumbent Umberg is running for state attorney general.

Four Democrats, meanwhile, are battling to succeed Umberg. Holding on to the seat is the Democrats' top priority this year, and the party's success will largely turn on how well the nominee survives the fractious primary campaign.

Democrats also see the 46th congressional district seat in central Orange County, held by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), as ripe for pickings. Dornan barely won reelection in 1992 even though Democrats hardly put up a fight.

Dornan is unopposed in the primary and is expected to battle hard against whoever emerges from the Democratic primary, which has been marked by divisive rhetoric.

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