Primaries for House Serving Up Only a Few Real Contests

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Ukiah), who is running for his third term from the 1st Congressional District in far northwest California, hopes that history doesn't repeat itself.

If it does, he will be booted from office--again--after serving just two years. In this highly contentious district, Riggs won in 1990, lost in 1992, then won again in 1994.

But the 1st District is the exception rather than the rule. About two-thirds of the state's congressional districts lean distinctly toward one of the two major parties.

So, despite the size of the state's delegation--with 52 House seats, the nation's largest--the upcoming March 26 primary is expected to generate only modest voter interest because so few districts are genuinely competitive.

Although there will be vigorous primary contests for three open Los Angeles-area districts, most of the remaining 49 incumbents can expect smooth passage to the November ballot.

"None of them look particularly vulnerable," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego who studies House elections.

But once past the primary hurdle, several incumbents--veterans and freshmen alike--are staring at perilous reelection journeys back to Capitol Hill.

Here is a look at some of the interesting races shaping up:

THE OPEN SEATS: Two veteran House members, Democrat Anthony C. Beilenson of Woodland Hills and Republican Carlos J. Moorhead of Glendale, have announced their retirement, setting off ambitious attempts by the parties to snap up an additional seat in one district while protecting their turf in another.

Richard Sybert, a wealthy former planning aide to Gov. Pete Wilson, nearly beat Beilenson in 1994 and is expected to win the GOP nomination in the 24th District.

Seven Democrats are vying for the party's nomination. Brad Sherman, an accountant and member of the State Board of Equalization, has picked up Beilenson's endorsement, along with the backing of local politicians, and is said to be willing to dump $500,000 of his own money into the race.

Beilenson squeaked by with just 49% of the vote two years ago, and Sybert's persistent campaigning and resulting higher profile may prove too much for this marginally Democratic district.

Moorhead, who was passed over for two committee chairmanships after the Republicans swept to power, will retreat to Glendale. He has endorsed Assembly majority leader and former Municipal Judge James Rogan, whom Republicans regard as one of their top candidates in the country.

Doug Kahn, a businessman who recently sold his printing company, battled Moorhead in 1992 and 1994 in the 27th District and is back again for the Democrats. But he is opposed by former Screen Actors Guild President Barry Gordon, a character actor who supplies the voice of Donatello in the cartoon show "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

The third open seat is that of former Rep. Walter R. Tucker III, who was forced to resign after his conviction on bribery charges related to his tenure as mayor of Compton. Wilson has called for a special open primary on March 26. A run-off would be necessary May 21 if none of the nine Democrats pulls in a majority in the 37th District.

State Assembly members Willard H. Murray Jr. and Juanita M. McDonald are up against Tucker's wife, Robin, for the nomination.

Though it is a messy situation, Democrats have little to fear in holding onto this heavily Democratic and African American district.

HOT PRIMARIES: Up north in the 1st District, Democratic voters have one of the most interesting arrays of candidates statewide.

After the party leaders' first choice, state Sen. Mike Thompson, turned them down, the top tier of competitors has three women: attorney Monica Marvin, former San Francisco Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and Michela Alioto, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore.

Marvin has the endorsement of EMILY's List, an organization that promotes Democratic women candidates, and is playing up her roots in the community; Silver and Alioto have their political bases elsewhere.

But it is Alioto who has the most arresting personal profile. The granddaughter of former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto and niece of Angela Alioto, who lost a bid for mayor earlier this year, Michela Alioto was disabled in a ski-lift accident when she was 13. She has used part of the settlement she received after the accident to prime her campaign fund.

Someone will emerge to face Riggs, who was evicted after his first term by Democrat Dan Hamburg.

Riggs returned the compliment to Hamburg in 1994, even though the district's registration tilts toward the Democrats.

Riggs' strong sympathies with the Republican leadership's agenda may give the Democrats some leverage to unseat him. But swirling political cross-currents between timber interests and environmentalists make this an unpredictable group of voters.

At the far southern end of the state, Latinos will soon make up more than one-half of Democratic Rep. Bob Filner's 50th District. Given this political reality, observers give San Diego City Councilman Juan Vargas an odds-on shot to bump off the two-term incumbent.

Filner, a former San Diego school board member, has successfully wooed a broad cross-section of Democratic voters to his side in the past but is taking the Vargas challenge very seriously.

ENDANGERED SPECIES: For most incumbents, the primary is a walk in the park. But two California lawmakers with placid primaries face real problems in November.

The 22nd District, encompassing Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo and represented by freshman Republican Rep. Andrea Seastrand, is regarded by many prognosticators as one of the most vulnerable GOP seats in the country--and probably the most vulnerable in California.

She beat Democrat Walter Capps, a religion professor, by a paltry 1,563 votes out of more than 200,000 cast two years ago.

Capps is back, and Seastrand has proved to be closer to Christian conservatism than the mainstream Republicanism that characterizes the district.

Bill Clinton won here by six percentage points in 1992, and Democrats believe that the Republican surge in 1994 that nudged Seastrand into the winner's column won't help her this time around.

Rep. Vic Fazio, the third-ranking Democrat in the House leadership, will face another trial to represent California's 3rd District, stretching north from Sacramento. This former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has suffered through back-to-back white-knuckle reelections, largely due to a 1992 redistricting that moved friendly voters to a neighboring district.

But this time, the political matrix is altered. Now that his party is in the minority, he offers voters less clout--and also fewer trappings of the consummate Washington insider.

Perhaps most telling will be how voters react to the closing last year of McClellan Air Force Base--a rich source of jobs in the district. For years, Fazio successfully fended off the predations of the federal base-closing commission.

Fazio's Republican opponent probably will be Tim LeFever, who held Fazio to 49.7% of the vote in 1994 while spending only $250,000 to the incumbent's $1.8 million.

Three other races also are expected to be tight in this fall's general election:

* Two-term Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) was a loser on election night in 1994 but pulled out a victory over Rancho Palos Verde City Councilwoman Susan Brooks after the absentee ballots were counted. The coastal 36th District, running from Venice to San Pedro, has almost identical voter registration for the two major parties. Whoever Harman's Republican opponent is, it could go either way.

* Democrat George E. Brown Jr. has been considered vulnerable for so many years that the threat almost seems idle. Although he repelled a series of Republican challengers during the 1980s in the San Bernardino-based 42nd District, his victory margins keep getting smaller. The cigar-chomping Brown won his first House term in the distant year of 1962.

* Freshman Republican Brian P. Bilbray knocked off Democrat Lynn Schenk in 1994--and she chose to sit out this election season. But the 49th District, encompassing north San Diego, Coronado and Imperial Beach, is home to a large faction of independents who lean to the left of Democrats and make the district less homey to the Republican incumbent.

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