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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / CONGRESS : Federal Probe Is Central Issue as 4 Challenge Rep. Kim

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As the June 7 primary approaches for Rep. Jay 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 the 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 includes a collage of newspaper articles detailing the congressman’s legal woes.

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 have held public office. In addition, they are likely to split the anti-Kim vote, leaving a large opening for the congressman, who with a primary victory under his belt would be well positioned for reelection. Republicans make up 48% of the voters in the district compared to 40% for Democrats.

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“The crowded nature of the (primary) field, all of them smelling blood here, probably means none of them will get to taste it,” said Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Meanwhile, issues such as violent crime, jobs and health care are playing second fiddle in the 41st 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.

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In reply, Kim went on the offensive earlier this month, 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 father, an auto dealer, to win the 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 that 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 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 of Kim, the first Korean American elected to Congress, has not hurt his fund-raising ability.

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He reported raising $224,260--almost four times as much as his nearest challenger--for his reelection campaign, according to his latest financial statement filed in Washington. That total includes a $23,000 personal loan Kim made to his campaign.

Fellow Koreans and other Asian-surnamed donors contributed all but about $28,000 of the total. And the vast majority of donations came from out of state, from as far away as New York.

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 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. “Our Republican seat is in jeopardy if Jay Kim wins the primary,” Romero said. “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.”

She also acknowledged that she has voted in only two of the last seven elections, saying, “There’s no excuse.”

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Of the other three challengers, Bob Kerns, 38, who owns an oil field development company, ran for Congress in 1986, losing to Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City).

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 former President George Bush in the 1992 Republican 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 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 mining company executive and Vietnam veteran who mentions 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 by 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 recently.

But some prominent Republican activists have signed on with the challengers.

Attorney James V. Lacy and former 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%.

Times staff writer Claire Spiegel contributed to this article.


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