Republican Ross Johnson, a veteran assemblyman, will face Democrat Madelene Arakelian, the owner of a trash-hauling firm, in a May runoff to represent an Orange County state Senate district that includes some of California's most affluent communities.
Johnson and Arakelian were the leading vote-getters in their respective political parties in a special election Tuesday that was marked by low turnout. Because neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote, they will square off in the runoff for the seat vacated by Marian Bergeson, now an Orange County supervisor.
The 35th Senate District runs from Seal Beach to the southern border of Laguna Beach and includes Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Irvine.
Johnson, 55, moved from Placentia to Irvine to qualify for the election. Despite being attacked as a carpetbagger, he was the top vote-getter among six Republicans, including former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson of Newport Beach and Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Cypress.
Johnson won 31% of the vote in the special election. Ferguson ran second with 25% and Allen tallied 22%
Arakelian, 61, who lives in Balboa, was a distant fourth with 8% of the vote. But she claimed her party's nomination by outpolling the only other Democrat in the race, Mike Palitz, a hotel owner from Corona del Mar.
Johnson will be heavily favored in the runoff because the coastal district is heavily Republican--GOP voters account for about 56% of the 400,000 registered voters; Democrats make up 32% of the voters.
Despite her disadvantage, Arakelian said Wednesday that she was looking forward to the runoff campaign. "I'm flying today," Arakelian said. "I have a real battle to fight and I'm ready to go full-bore."
Johnson, who was backed by most of the prominent Republicans in the state and endorsed by Bergeson, said support from these party officials was the key to his candidacy.
"That's an indication of the kind of trust and respect I've earned from my colleagues," said Johnson, a 16-year member of the Assembly.
Meanwhile, the political future looks particularly cloudy for Ferguson, 71, an ex-Marine lieutenant colonel who spent the past decade in the Assembly before resigning in August to set the stage for his state Senate campaign. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday--no one answered the telephone at either his personal office or campaign office in Newport Beach.
Allen, 58, has nearly two years left on her Assembly term, although that will be all because of term limits. She was able to pull off political upsets in 1982 and again in 1992 to command an Assembly seat, but not this time.
"I'm out the door in '96," Allen said.
As expected in a special election, Tuesday's turnout was low, just under 15%.
The fiercest competition leading up to the vote was waged between Johnson and Ferguson. Although the county is mired in the depths of an unprecedented bankruptcy, neither paid it much attention in a blizzard of campaign mailers. Instead, name-calling was frequent.
Ferguson was continually labeled a traitor by Johnson for allegedly conspiring to aid Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) during Ferguson's years in the Assembly.
Ferguson called Johnson a "liar" for his attacks and a "carpetbagger" for moving into the district.
Times staff writer Greg Hernandez and correspondent Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.
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Election Returns / 35th Senate District
100% of Precincts Reporting Votes % Ross Johnson (R)* 17,839 31.3 Gil Ferguson (R) 14,430 25.3 Doris Allen (R) 12,571 22.1 M. Arakelian (D)* 4,519 7.9 Michael D. Palitz (D) 3,037 5.3 Robert F. Ruper (R) 1,719 3.0 Dan Worthington (R) 1,624 2.8 Long Pham (R) 1,256 2.2
Because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, the top vote-getters from each party (in bold (*) type) will face each other in a May 9 runoff. Results are not official and could be affected by absentee ballots.