Candidates Err in Ignoring Local Issues : With O.C. in Crisis, 35th Senate District Contenders Focus Instead on Political Infighting

It may be expecting a lot of a special election with a crowded field to produce informed public discussion. It is worth asking for in Orange County's 35th Senate District nevertheless. A special election will be held on March 14, with the surviving candidates moving to a runoff election if there is no clear winner.

The 35th sprawls across coastal areas that have been served well in recent years by the longtime conservative Republican state senator Marian Bergeson, who recently replaced Thomas F. Riley as 5th District supervisor. Three veteran members of the Assembly who have represented diverse sections of Orange County are among eight candidates squaring off.

With Orange County in bankruptcy, productive relationships between Sacramento and our area are especially important. What we seem to be getting from this race is a running commentary on the behind-the-scenes power struggle between Republicans and Democrats for control of the Assembly. The county is in crisis, yet the candidates are talking about Sacramento politics.

Former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson, a Newport Beach Republican, has taken a pounding over campaign charges by Ross Johnson. Johnson, since 1978 the representative in the 72nd Assembly District, has said Ferguson advised Republican maverick Paul Horcher to cast a key vote that kept Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in control. Ferguson says all he did was tell Horcher to get the best deal he could from Republican Leader Jim Brulte in the presence of Gov. Pete Wilson.

Voters also have heard an allegation of carpetbagging leveled at Johnson. Ferguson says Johnson "abandoned his voters" and has speculated that Brown promised to keep from throwing Johnson out of the Assembly in exchange for Johnson pushing Republicans to accept a Democrat-proposed, bipartisan power sharing plan. Johnson says that charge is outrageous.

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) largely has stayed out of the line of fire, but some questions have been raised about her past association with the powerful California Teachers Assn., which put more than $100,000 into her 1992 campaign. She says charges of undue influence won't wash.

All of this makes for a charged campaign atmosphere. Bergeson, it should be remembered, wisely used her time in Sacramento to focus on local government. Those who would succeed her should also concentrate on matters of immediate importance to Orange County.

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