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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE : Feinstein Wins Support of Farm Bureau : Influential federation twice before endorsed the senator’s Republican opponents. Huffington’s campaign says the group’s rank-and-file do not back the incumbent.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sen. Dianne Feinstein got a boost from an influential former adversary this week when the state’s largest agriculture organization, after twice supporting her Republican opponents, endorsed her reelection.

Because agriculture is not a natural friend of Democrats, Feinstein’s campaign said the endorsement by the California Farm Bureau Federation was proof that the senator’s performance in office has been persuasive.

The endorsement released Thursday also could prove significant because the support of agriculture, although helpful for Democrats, is considered crucial for Republican candidates in California. Feinstein’s Republican challenger in the Senate race, Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara), has made the Central Valley’s farming communities a major geographic priority in his campaign.

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Feinstein lost the Central Valley when she was elected to the Senate in 1992 over appointed Republican Sen. John Seymour. At the time, Seymour was supported by the farm bureau, which claims a membership of more than 75,000 farming families statewide. The group also backed Pete Wilson when he faced Feinstein in the 1990 race for governor.

Farm bureau officials said the difference is that Feinstein now is an officeholder and she has had an opportunity to demonstrate a concern for the industry’s problems.

“She has a genuine concern for the state’s largest industry that has been reinforced many, many times,” said Bob L. Vice, president of the farm bureau and a Republican. “She often ignores partisan pressures to make sound decisions in the best interest of our industry and our state.”

Huffington’s campaign downplayed the endorsement, saying the group’s rank-and-file members do not agree with the leadership. It also said Huffington will carry the valley, especially because farmers are unhappy with Feinstein’s support for a federal gas tax increase last year and the unsuccessful 1990 “Big Green” environmental initiative.

“What makes (the endorsement) insignificant is that the leadership of the farm bureau doesn’t represent the members anymore,” Huffington campaign manager Bob Schuman said.

Farm bureau officials dismissed Schuman’s complaint, saying the endorsement was nearly unanimous by a 21-member, bipartisan board that includes farmers from throughout the state.

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The Feinstein campaign portrayed the endorsement as proof of the candidate’s major themes--that she has been an effective lawmaker and an advocate for California.

“It is just another sign of very thoughtful people that are saying in a nonpartisan fashion: This is a person who deserves to be reelected because she understands California,” Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata said.

John Peace, director of political education for the farm bureau, said the group’s decision should not be interpreted as anti-Huffington but as a recognition of Feinstein’s help for agriculture since she has been in office. The group cited two issues in which Feinstein has helped farmers recently:

One came when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed farmers to bear a greater burden for workers’ compensation cases than other industries. Feinstein later authored legislation that is pending to reverse the decision.

Peace said Feinstein also organized a meeting between agriculture leaders and top Clinton Administration officials to discuss concerns about the Mediterranean fruit fly. As a result, Administration officials are working to find more funding for sterile fruit fly hatcheries and other eradication efforts.

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