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ELECTIONS / STATE SENATE, ASSEMBLY : Democrats Line Up Full Slate of Challengers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a mad scramble that lasted right up to the deadline, Democratic Party leaders on Wednesday managed to assemble a full slate of candidates to challenge each of the area’s Republican state lawmakers who face reelection next year.

Jess Herrera, 46, an Oxnard Harbor District commissioner, filed his intention to run against Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard) a few minutes before the filing period closed at 5 p.m. for all prospective legislative candidates.

And Aneesh Lele, a 21-year-old political science student at UC Santa Barbara, waited until the last moment to make it official that he will challenge Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) in the 35th District, which encompasses Ventura, Ojai and Santa Paula.

“It is right down to the wire,” Lele said late Wednesday afternoon while being escorted by a Democratic Party official to file his candidacy papers. He said he is excited about party leaders backing the candidacy of someone his age. “There has not been one politician that has really, really listened to the voice of my generation.”

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Chatsworth attorney John Birke, as he previously announced, will run against state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) in a sprawling 19th state Senate District that straddles the Los Angeles County-Ventura County line.

And two Democrats--computer software engineer David Ross of Oak Park and Canoga Park math teacher Jon Lauritzen--said they plan to join a crowded field of Republicans running in the 38th Assembly District to replace retiring Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills).

The deadline for candidates in the 38th District--which includes Simi Valley, parts of the Conejo Valley and Fillmore--has been extended to Monday along with all other districts where the incumbent is not returning.

Democratic leaders have spent months courting potential candidates to make sure that none of the Republican lawmakers representing Ventura County in Sacramento have a free ride during next year’s election.

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The Democrats’ political strategy is to force the incumbent Republicans to defend their political turf, so that they have to spend money on their own campaigns instead of diverting it to hotly contested races.

But lining up Democratic candidates proved more difficult than anticipated this year against Takasugi and Firestone, as some would-be contenders shied from the races for a variety of personal, professional or political reasons.

“It was always thought that term limits would encourage competition,” said Robert Gallaway, chairman of the Ventura County Democratic Party. “But it seems like the opposite is happening.”

For instance, Gallaway said, many strong candidates wanted to sit out of the upcoming race against Takasugi and instead run in 1998 when Takasugi is forced out by voter-imposed term limits.

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“When we talk to natural candidates, they say, ‘Why don’t I wait for two years?’ ” he said. “It’s a curious result from term limits.”

Takasugi will first face an opponent in the March 26 Republican primary in the 37th Assembly District, which includes Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Camarillo, Moorpark and part of the Conejo Valley.

Republican Central Committee member Matt Noah, a Moorpark electrical engineer and anti-abortion activist, said he plans to point out the differences between Takasugi and himself on the abortion issue. Takasugi supports abortion rights. Noah said his campaign themes will also focus on lowering taxes and ending affirmation-action programs.

“Nao Takasugi is a very nice man,” Noah said. “We just differ on public policy issues.”

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The winner of the Republican primary will then face Herrera in the November election. In addition to being an elected member of the board that runs the deep-water Port of Hueneme, Herrera is secretary/treasurer of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union in Port Hueneme.

In the 38th Assembly District, Lauritzen and Ross will square off in the March 26 Democratic primary and then face the winner of the crowded Republican contest.

Former Assemblyman Tom McClintock, who had moved to Sacramento, recently rented an apartment in Simi Valley so he could join the race that includes six other Republican candidates.

The other GOP contenders who filed candidacy papers are: Bob Larkin, a Simi Valley insurance agent and former head of the county’s Republican party; Steve Frank, a Simi Valley government affairs consultant; Ross Hopkins, a Canoga Park public affairs consultant; Scott Wilk, a top aide to Assemblywoman Boland, Peggy Freeman, a retired director of a Santa Clarita Valley community clinic, and Robert Hamlin, a retired Ventura County sheriff’s deputy who lives in Castaic.

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