As the June 7 primary approaches for Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar), election rivals have wasted no time unleashing an avalanche of criticism at him prompted by evidence of federal election code violations.
"BETRAYED" is emblazoned in red on a black cover of a recent mailer from candidate Valerie Romero. The inside features a photo of the congressman with "FBI target" superimposed.
"Jay Kim is being investigated by the FBI, the Federal Election Commission and the IRS. . . . Jay Kim has betrayed our trust and lost our respect," declares the mailer, which also included a collage of newspaper articles detailing the congressman's legal woes.
But despite the charges and the negative campaigning, it is unclear if the investigation will cost Kim his seat. His primary challengers are not political heavyweights; none has held public office before. In addition, they are likely to split the anti-Kim vote, leaving a large opening for the congressman.
"The crowded nature of the field, all of them smelling blood here, probably means none of them will get to taste it," said Alan Heslop, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College.
Meanwhile, issues such as violent crime, jobs and health care are playing second fiddle in the 41st Congressional District, which includes parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. The central issue is Kim's financial campaign dealings, raised by Romero and, to a lesser extent, the other three GOP challengers.
For now, the two contenders in the Democratic primary, urban redeveloper Ed Tessier and attorney Richard L. Waldron, are leaving the issue of integrity to the Republicans.
Last summer, Kim became the target of a federal probe into possible election, tax and labor law violations after The Times reported that he secretly used about $480,000 from his engineering corporation to finance his 1992 federal campaign. Despite a prohibition on corporate contributions to federal campaigns, JayKim Engineers Inc. provided Kim's campaign with free rent, staff and office supplies, according to internal company records and checks signed by Kim that were obtained by The Times.
In reply, Kim went on the offensive earlier this week, sending out a mailer that attacked the 30-year-old Romero as a political nobody who is relying on the wealth and reputation of her auto dealer father to win election.
"Her short life has not produced any marks of achievement," the mailer said.
Kim's mailer, which uses the theme "lies, lies, lies," also said Romero distorted the accusations against Kim.
Romero said she stands by her statements on Kim's legal problems and acknowledged her father's importance to her campaign while maintaining she would be a good congresswoman.
"I've been very clear about who I am," Romero said. "I'm a 30-year-old and I work in a family business."
Kim, meanwhile, has been shunning public forums, running a low-key campaign and attempting to divert attention from the investigation.
In recent weeks, Kim has been seen campaigning at a Republican women's club in Yorba Linda, at GOP-sponsored receptions and at two fund-raisers held on his behalf in Diamond Bar and Yorba Linda.
In his only recent media interview on the investigation, Kim told the Daily Bulletin of Ontario that, at most, he is guilty only of a technical violation. He declined an interview request from The Times.
The investigation hovering over Kim, the first Korean American ever elected to Congress, has not hurt his fund-raising ability.
He reported raising $224,260--almost four times as much as his nearest challenger--for his reelection campaign, according to the latest finance statement, filed last week in Washington. That total includes a $23,000 personal loan Kim made to his campaign.
Fellow Korean Americans and other Asian-surnamed donors contributed all but about $28,000 of that amount. And the vast majority of donations came from out of state, from as far away as New York.
"He has pretty strong support," said Newport Beach developer William Buck Johns, a Kim campaign contributor and fund-raiser. The investigation is "much ado about nothing" as it relates to the race, he added.
Romero, meanwhile, has gone into debt to fund her campaign, making personal loans to her campaign totaling $70,000. According to the latest finance statement, Romero has raised $61,343 for her congressional bid, and has spent $108,715.
A large portion of her campaign contributions came from the automobile industry.
With Kim focusing on issues such as health care and illegal immigration, supporters believe he will suffer little damage from the ongoing probe and emerge victorious in the primary and general elections.
But opponents see it otherwise.
"People are very upset with Washington and the corruption that seems to be associated with many of our elected officials," said Angela Bay Buchanan, former GOP candidate for state treasurer and sister of former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. She is supporting Bob Kerns.
Romero also called attention to the probe during a recent candidates forum before the Orange County Republican Party Central Committee.
"Our Republican seat is in jeopardy if Jay Kim wins the primary," said Romero. "The Democrats have targeted our district. We cannot afford to let this happen."
Because of her fund-raising ability, Romero is considered the strongest of the challengers. But as a political neophyte in her first campaign, she is still studying some of the key issues in the district. Asked her opinion of air pollution regulations and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates stationary sources of pollution in the area, Romero responded, "I'm still looking into it."
Romero also acknowledged that she has voted in only two of the last seven elections, saying, "There's no excuse."
Of the other three challengers, Kerns, 38, who owns an oil field development company, ran for Congress in 1986, losing to Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City).
But over the years, Kerns has been more foot soldier than general. He has worked for various conservative candidates including Pat Buchanan, who tried to defeat George Bush in the 1992 Republican presidential primary.
Todd Thaker, 36, a lawyer who once served as director of intergovernmental affairs for then-U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, was a candidate in the state Senate primary in 1992 but lost.
He has a liability; he lives in Orange, outside the 41st District. Thaker said he plans to move into the district after the primary.
Ronald L. Curtis, 48, of Upland, also running for office for the first time, is a straight-talking mining company executive and Vietnam veteran who has no difficulty mentioning his more than 70 "confirmed kills" during the war.
Curtis says Kim "sold his vote" and betrayed the American worker by voting in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But the barbs have not prevented support for Kim, some of it coming from congressional colleagues and local officials.
A recent Kim campaign mailer listed 26 statements of endorsement, including 12 by congressmen from across the country and two from mayors of cities in his district.
One of the endorsements came from Rep. Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach), the state congressional delegation's representative to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"Jay has been working very hard in Congress and deserves to be judged on his accomplishments here," Cox said in a recent interview.
But some prominent Republican activists have signed on with the challengers.
Attorney James V. Lacy and ex-Assemblyman Charles Bader, who both lost to Kim in the 1992 Republican primary, have endorsed Romero. Together, Lacy and Bader received more than 55% of the vote compared to Kim's 30%.
If Kim survives the primary and his legal troubles do not worsen, he is given a good chance of winning reelection in November. Republicans make up 48% of the voters in the district compared to 40% for Democrats.
Times staff writer Claire Spiegel contributed to this article.