It’s been two years since Assemblyman Jim Morrissey got the fight--and the fright--of his political life. Democrat Lou Correa came within 93 votes of knocking off the Santa Ana Republican in the 1996 dust-up for his central Orange County seat.
Now they’re heading for a November rematch and both sides in the 69th Assembly District have beefed up for battle. Together, they will likely spend more than $1 million wooing the district’s 77,000 voters.
Correa, who was outspent nearly 2-to-1 two years ago, expects big financial help this time from Democrats in Sacramento, particularly the large and powerful Latino caucus. He hopes to appeal to Latinos, who make up 35% of the district’s electorate.
Morrissey, meanwhile, has spent the last two years smoothing his conservative edges to better fit a blue-collar district where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans.
He has frequented the home turf, distributing mailers highlighting his hopes and legislative exploits, walking precincts--he had hit 16,600 homes at last count--and attending every Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce meeting he can find.
On the fund-raising front, Morrissey again enjoys a big edge. As of last week, the incumbent had collected $480,567 and has $68,375 left, while Correa had picked up $223,125 and has $27,000 remaining.
Even as the two competitors hustle for votes and contributions, some pundits are predicting the race could be influenced by deeper political currents.
Correa benefited in 1996 from a heavy Democrat turnout whipped up by the presidential election and the overlaying congressional battle that saw Democrat Loretta Sanchez nip longtime Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan.
Though Sanchez and Dornan are at it again, the 69th District typically experiences a big drop in turnout during nonpresidential years. President Clinton’s travails also could sour some voters. Less enthusiasm among Democrats, combined with Morrissey’s unflagging attention to the district, could make Correa’s task tougher than it was two years ago.
Correa, however, insists that his campaign can turn out the “nontraditional voters” he needs to win. Those are Latinos and working-class Democrats who normally don’t hit the polls.
“When I ran in 1996, nobody gave me a chance,” said Correa, 40. “But we did it once, and we’ll do it again by getting those nontraditional voters to vote.”
He also could get help from two candidates from minor parties that often siphon Republican votes--Libertarian Bolynda Schultz, 28, a Santa Ana computer administrator, and Jim Benson, 35, an Anaheim businessman, of the Reform Party.
Correa, an associate real estate broker who moonlights as an evening high school continuation teacher, says his stance on the issues will appeal in the district.
He wants to better fund education at the local and state level. Correa, who has graduate degrees in law and business from UCLA, likes the concept of school uniforms and wants to get the private sector to participate more.
A gun owner who believes in a right to bear arms, Correa nonetheless wants a ban on the sorts of cheap handguns that are the weapon of choice for teenage hoodlums.
He also vows to push for reform of the health care industry. Correa, whose wife is a gynecologist at a health maintenance organization, wants laws ensuring that HMOs don’t cherry-pick customers based on patients’ health risks. “Those not covered end up on the public dole,” he said.
Gaffes by the Democrat
But the Democrat has had a few missteps. He initially botched an attempt to get campaign help from a well-heeled gay and lesbian political group, giving a straight arm to their legislative agenda in an endorsement interview.
“He had not done his homework,” said Jeff LeTourneau, the group’s chairman. “But he agreed to have a series of meetings and he’s come around. He’s not there for us on a domestic partners law, but I think he supports our community on the other issues.”
The Correa camp, meanwhile, believes Morrissey has helped their cause. Since nearly losing in 1996, Morrissey has tried to build bridges to the district’s Latino and labor constituencies by casting votes in Sacramento favorable to those camps.
First elected in 1994, Morrissey hardly ever voted with labor in his first term. But he sided with unions more than half the time during the 1997-98 legislative session. He also raised eyebrows among some conservatives by refusing to support Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education measure approved by voters in June but opposed by many Latinos.
“He was extremely conservative in his first term. For him to turn around and change now is insincere,” Correa said. “I think he’s doing it to get reelected. And if he’s reelected, the question becomes which Jim Morrissey will show up for his final term.”
Labor leaders say Morrissey’s new union leanings won’t last past election day. “I’m sure the day he’s reelected we get thrown to the coals again,” said Mike Potts of the Los Angeles-Orange County Building Trades Council.
For his part, Morrissey says he really hasn’t shifted much between his first and second terms.
“I don’t think I’ve changed that much,” said Morrissey, 68. “I’m still a darn good Republican vote.”
On labor issues, he said, he has tried to reflect the sentiment of his district but has steered away from unions on anything that affects the bottom line for business, such as minimum wage and overtime legislation.
“The ones I could vote for, I voted for,” said Morrissey, the retired president of a machining company that produces aerospace parts. “A long time ago I was in a union. I think I’ve always seen that perspective to a certain extent.”
He also said he has tried since his first day in office to build bridges to the Latino community. The first staffer he hired in 1994 was a Democrat Latina who ran his district office. Morrissey also noted that he was recently honored as legislator of the year by the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Lou Correa goes around saying he is the Latino candidate,” Morrissey said. “He’s really just a candidate who happens to be Latino. When I go out there and talk my limited Spanish, I say I’m the assemblyman for everyone.”
Touting His Record
Morrissey is running hard on his record, particularly the treasure trove of financial help he’s been able to give the district the last few years.
Helped by Republican leaders fearful of losing the district, Morrissey has secured $6.75 million in state funding for the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana and $250,000 to help the city clean up graffiti and better solve old crimes. He has sent an additional $85,000 to Anaheim for a high-tech anti-graffiti truck.
While foes say it’s pork politics, Morrissey contends he’s simply returning taxpayers money. “Pork is when you build a bridge to nowhere,” he said. “I’m just trying to get some of our tax money back instead of having it go to San Francisco. And it’s going for tremendously good causes.”
Since first elected, Morrissey has refused to take a series of pay hikes ordered for lawmakers, instead giving $96,000 to charity. With a healthy retirement, Morrissey said he doesn’t need the extra money.
Morrissey doesn’t have a rock-hard blueprint for a final term in the Assembly, but says he backs anti-crime measures such as toughening sentences for defrauding the elderly. He vows to keep voting for stripping over-regulation of small business, slashing taxes and shrinking class sizes.
If he wins this term, he will retire after it, upholding a pledge to serve six years in the Assembly and then get out of politics altogether. The pledge was made before term limits became law.
“I’m not like my opponent. He’s an underemployed lawyer looking for a job,” Morrissey said. “I’m just trying to return something to the community.”
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Incumbent Assemblyman Jim Morrissey and Lou Correa will reprise their tight 1996 race this year in the 69th District:
Political affiliation: Republican
Family: Wife, six grown children
Education: High school graduate
Career highlights: Worked way up at tool-and-die firm to become majority owner and chief executive; elected to Assembly in 1994; beat Lou Correa in 1996 election
Issues: Wants tax cuts; supports class-size reduction and private-school vouchers; wants less business regulation; supports tougher criminal sentences
Political affiliation: Democrat
Family: Wife and three children, ages 2 to 6
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, Cal State Fullerton; master’s in business and law degree, UCLA
Career highlights: Former investment banker; associate real estate broker and schoolteacher; helped unsuccessful fight for Anaheim school bond; barely lost to Morrissey in 1996
Issues: Supports more school funding; backs return to daily overtime, minimum-wage boost; wants ban on cheap handguns; backs reforms to ease HMO denial of patient coverage
Source: Individual candidates