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Condit Loses Reelection Bid to Former Protege

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rep. Gary Condit on Tuesday resoundingly lost his uphill bid to hold onto his Central Valley congressional seat, his successful political career ended by his relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy.

Condit’s defeat, at the hands of a onetime friend and protege, Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, marked the end of a 30-year political career. Cardoza was one of several Democrats who challenged Condit for a seat that, until Levy disappeared last spring, was considered a sure bet for the incumbent. Instead, Condit became one of the few entrenched incumbents to lose a primary contest.

Although police have said they do not consider him a suspect in the case, questions about the married congressman’s relationship with the 24-year-old intern derailed his career and brought the unwelcome glare of the national spotlight to his conservative agricultural district. For most of Tuesday, Condit avoided reporters and reportedly stayed at home to await word of his fate.

“Today the people of the Central Valley stood up for their values, the values that are central to their lives,” Cardoza said in a victory speech shortly after 10:30 p.m.

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About the same time, Condit emerged from his house in Ceres, dressed in a purple fleece sweatshirt and blue jeans. The congressman avoided conceding, but thanked the voters of the 18th District and the people who worked on his reelection bid.

“I appreciate their support, their love,” he said. “I will never forget that.”

About 15 minutes after his statement, the sprinklers went on, dousing a gaggle of television reporters and cameramen staked out in front of his house.

Meanwhile, in the working-class suburbs of southeast Los Angeles County, three top contenders in a crowded Democratic primary vied to represent the 39th Congressional District. The seat was added after the 2000 Census and was fashioned for a Latino to reflect California’s changing demographics. It is one of just two open congressional slots in the state.

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With more than two-thirds of the vote counted, lawyer and labor union official Linda Sanchez, sister of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), was leading South Gate Councilman Hector de la Torre and Assemblywoman Sally Havice of Cerritos.

“Obviously, it looks good at this point,” Linda Sanchez said. “It’s like a dream come true. It’s hard to grasp right now.”

Although he was running behind Sanchez, De la Torre said he was pleased with the campaign he ran.

“We ran a clean campaign focused on my experience, my roots in the community and ability to do the job,” De la Torre said Tuesday night.

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These two races were among the few real contests for the House of Representatives on Tuesday’s state ballot. In that sense, the primary offered a preview of the November election, when nearly all 51 incumbents seeking reelection are expected to cruise to victory thanks to a redistricting plan that preserved the status quo in California’s congressional delegation.

Currently, Democrats hold 32 congressional seats, while Republicans claim 20.

Condit kept a low profile on the day of his reckoning, ducking the media as he toured his district in a last-ditch effort to win support. Dogged by his relationship with Levy, he faced the toughest battle of his three decades in politics. A conservative Democrat who long espoused family values, the seven-term congressman had seemed assured of yet another easy reelection victory a year ago.

But things changed when Modesto native Levy vanished from Washington, D.C., in May, just as she was about to return to USC to accept her master’s degree. Relatives of Levy, who had completed a federal internship as part of her studies, said she had had an affair with the 53-year-old Condit, who has two grown children.

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Condit has repeatedly refused to discuss details of his relationship with Levy except to acknowledge that they were close. For several months, until Sept. 11, he was the subject of intensive media coverage and became grist of late-night television talk and comedy shows.

As Condit’s once-loyal constituents showed signs of anger with him, party leaders abandoned the congressman, who had once been a trusted confidant to Gov. Gray Davis. State legislators even redrew his district to make it harder for him to win the Democratic nomination. Republicans indicated that they would probably target the strongly Democratic district if Condit survived the primary. Four Republicans, including state Sen. Dick Monteith of Modesto, filed for the race in a district where Democrats have a 52% to 35% registration edge.

Cardoza outdistanced Condit and the other Democratic candidates in fund-raising, endorsements and public opinion polls. But Condit fought back, stumping with his family through the district and using his own money to help finance his campaign. Cardoza will face Monteith in November.

On Tuesday, residents in Modesto waited for the election results that many hoped would take the Central Valley town out of the national spotlight.

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“I think he’s a liar, and he abused his power,” said Terri Richey, 40, as she shopped at a florist’s a few doors down from Condit’s office. She said she voted for one of his challengers.

But others were supportive.

“Well, you know, he’s done a lot for this area,” said Shannon Gonzalez, 29, a Republican. “I tend to be one of those people who likes to judge people on what they’ve done and try to keep their personal life out of it.”

Race Turned Nasty at Times

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Another hard-fought battle occurred in the 39th District of southeast Los Angeles County. Among the three main contenders in the six-way Democratic primary, Sanchez traded on her sister’s famed fund-raising skills to win the money race. The race in the U-shaped district turned nasty at times. Havice and De la Torre, along with other candidates, demanded, unsuccessfully, that Sanchez pull her negative cable television ads. Last weekend, the Sanchez campaign delivered a mailer blasting De la Torre.

Latino leaders split on endorsements but largely stayed out of the fray. De la Torre picked up the endorsement of retiring Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach), whose 38th District was obliterated in last year’s effort to create the new 39th District.

To make up for the loss of Horn’s seat, a new district with a GOP majority, the 21st, was drawn to encompass Tulare County and parts of Fresno County, including the farming communities of Clovis and Reedley. There, Assemblyman Mike Briggs, former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson and dairy farmer Devin Nunes were among seven vying for the GOP nomination.

Few of California’s incumbents are seriously threatened in the November election because of the incumbent-protection plan the Legislature passed as part of the once-a-decade redrawing of district lines.

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The new maps were drawn by Democrats, who dominate the Legislature. They ensured that their party would win California’s one added seat, bringing Democrats’ numbers in the congressional delegation to 33. Republicans, reassured that they would maintain their current number of seats, went along with the plan.

Most of those seeking to oust incumbents of their own party Tuesday were succumbing to the long odds against unseating an entrenched office-holder. Investment broker Kevin Feldman of West Hollywood, for example, trailed far behind Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in the redrawn 30th District, which stretches from Los Angeles’ Westside into the west San Fernando Valley.

In the redrawn 37th District, which encompasses almost 80% of Long Beach, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) was turning back a bid by government professor Peter Mathews, who has sought an area congressional seat several times before.

In last year’s redistricting, Long Beach’s port and affluent coastal neighborhoods were put into the 46th District of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who was unopposed Tuesday for his party’s nomination and is heavily favored to win in November, leaving the state’s fifth largest city without one of its own in Congress in nearly a decade.

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Times staff writers Claire Luna, Richard Marosi, Doug Smith and Kenneth Weiss contributed to this report.


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