With term limits continuing to usher longtime lawmakers from office, Californians went to the polls Tuesday to elect dozens of candidates for legislative seats.
In the race to replace state Sen. Ralph Dills, 88, (D-El Segundo), a Capitol denizen since the New Deal, Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) appeared headed to an easy primary victory. She will face Republican activist Asha Knott in the November general election for the 28th District seat.
Other hotly contested Southern California legislative races were too close to call.
When the winners are sworn into office in December, every member of the Senate will be new to their seats since 1990, when voters approved Proposition 140, the term limits initiative. The Assembly turned over completely two years ago.
The spring campaigns revolved around big issues, such as whether to cut California's car tax and how to improve schools, and purely local matters, like a bear-hunting trip in which a challenger in a Northern California Republican Assembly race accused the incumbent of leaving behind the ursine carcass, a violation of the law and bad bear-hunting etiquette.
The primary winner is expected to be the victor in the November general election in 65 of the 80 Assembly races and 15 of the 20 Senate campaigns. That's because most districts are so heavily dominated by Republican or Democratic voters that a triumph in the primary is tantamount to a ticket to Sacramento.
Two of the hardest fought Senate races were in heavily Democratic sections of Los Angeles.
In the contest to replace 20-year veteran Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Murray of Los Angeles faced former Democratic Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson, who was forced by term limits to leave the lower house in 1996. Early results showed a virtual dead heat.
In a San Fernando Valley Senate district, City Councilman Richard Alarcon was boosted over the weekend when a political action committee run by Latino lawmakers poured $181,000 into the councilman's campaign against former Assembly Democratic Leader Richard Katz of Sylmar. Katz led in very early returns.
Katz and Alarcon each will spend more than $600,000 for the right to replace Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), who has been in the Legislature since 1974 and is leaving because of term limits.
The most turnover will come in the Assembly, where there are 25 seats without incumbents, including several hotly contested Southern California primary races:
* Culver City: With Murray seeking a Senate seat, his aide, Joey Hill, is running against Herb Wesson, an aide to Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) endorsed Wesson.
* Long Beach: Long Beach City Prosecutor Julie Alban spent $250,000 of her own money in her Republican race against Rancho Palos Verdes City Councilwoman Marilyn Lyon. Alban is a paraplegic who was shot by a boyfriend 10 years ago, who then turned the gun on himself. Alban's father, a surgeon, saved them both.
* Rosemead: With Democratic Assemblywoman Diane Martinez running for state insurance commissioner, her sister, Susan Martinez-Baker of Rosemead, was locked in a tight Democratic race against Gloria Romero, a college professor endorsed by Villaraigosa. Judy Chu, a psychology professor and Monterey Park City Council member, also was running in the Democratic primary.
* Ventura: Republican Tony Strickland, a legislative staffer from Thousand Oaks, edged into an early lead over Rich Sybert of Camarillo, a toy maker and former appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson. Sybert embarrassed himself when he was caught on video ripping down Strickland's signs in the middle of the night.
The Legislature is controlled by Democrats, who hold a 43 to 37 margin over Republicans in the Assembly, and a 22 to 16 margin in the Senate, which also has one Independent and a vacancy. However, the control is tenuous and will be decided in November by a few thousand votes in a handful of swing districts.
Even as the primary campaign ended, candidates were raising money frantically. Conservative Christian savings-and-loan heir Howard Ahmanson of Irvine and a political action committee he's part of gave more than $90,000 to Republican candidates in the closing days of the election.
Most of the late campaign money came from big business and organized labor. Tobacco giant Philip Morris, for example, gave $60,000 to Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard last weekend, and its beer-making subsidiary, Miller Brewing, gave $10,000 to Assembly candidate Tom Calderon, a Whittier Democrat and brother of state Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), who ran for attorney general.
In an especially intriguing development, a new group called Conservative Attorneys for Civil Justice poured $130,000 into the races of 11 Republican primary candidates in safe GOP seats.
Trial lawyers are a mainstay of Democratic fund-raising. But with the new conservative group backing Republicans, plaintiffs' lawyers potentially could win more legislative battles against the insurance industry and physicians over caps on attorneys fees and limits on money damages in lawsuits.
"It's scaring a lot of our business friends," said one Republican lawmaker.
The lawyer-insurance rivalry was playing out in a hotly contested Republican fight for an Assembly seat in southern Orange County and northern San Diego County. There, Dana Point attorney Jim Lacy took $89,000 from the conservative attorneys, while Laguna Niguel Mayor Pat Bates, got cash infusions from the insurance industry.
This is the first election in which term limits will take full hold in the Legislature. Assembly members can serve three two-year terms. Senators can serve two four-year terms.