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Democrat Leads Race to Replace Condit

Times Staff Writer

In one of California’s few competitive contests for Congress or the Legislature, Democratic Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza appeared headed for victory Tuesday in the closely watched race to replace Democratic Rep. Gary Condit in the Central Valley.

Meanwhile, Democratic attorney Linda Sanchez took a solid lead in the race to capture a new congressional seat in southeast Los Angeles County.

In a pivotal state Senate race, Republican Jeff Denham held the lead over former Democratic Assemblyman Rusty Areias in the Central Valley’s 12th District. Though the seat is currently occupied by a Republican, Democrats poured time and money into the district in their quest to pick up the one seat they need to gain a two-thirds majority in the upper house.

A handful of Assembly races appeared close, but most contests held little suspense and Democrats were expected to hold onto a comfortable majority in that chamber.

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Dogged by scandal over his relationship with murdered intern Chandra Levy, Condit lost the Democratic primary in March and set in motion one of the state’s fiercest campaigns. The race between Cardoza (D-Merced), a former Condit aide, and state Sen. Dick Monteith (R-Modesto) was regarded as one of a few close contests around the nation that could help determine whether Republicans maintained or strengthened their control of the House of Representatives.

Both parties poured vast amounts of money and other aid into the district, where a Republican voter registration drive narrowed the Democrats’ edge.

Democrats hold a clear advantage in the new 39th Congressional District, where Sanchez faced Republican businessman Tim Escobar. The seat was added to the California delegation after the 2000 census, and was drawn to favor a Latino Democrat.

A Sanchez victory would mark the first time related women have served simultaneously in the House. Sanchez is the younger sister of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), whose connections and fund-raising clout helped her sibling win a fierce Democratic primary."My sister and I are hoping that we are a symbol of the diversity to come in Congress,” Linda Sanchez said at her election night party in Lakewood. “I’m hoping this encourages women, people of color and younger folks to run for office.”

In another notable local race, former Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally ended his political retirement by defeating Republican Mark Anthony Iles in the Compton-based 52nd Assembly District. Dymally began his career in the Assembly in 1963.

Dymally, an African American who retired as a congressman in 1992, said he entered the race after he searched unsuccessfully for other experienced candidates.

“There is a whole different political culture in Sacramento now -- a fast turnover and not a lot of experienced hands,” Dymally said, blaming term limits for the situation. He said he would concentrate on legislation to help community colleges and also wants to address health-care issues.

Elsewhere in the state, the major parties fought particularly hard for three open Assembly seats, including the 15th District in Northern California and two in the southern end of the state.

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In inland San Diego County’s 78th District, Republican Shirley Horton, mayor of Chula Vista, was in a tight race with Democrat Vincent Hall, a former aide to Gov. Gray Davis.

Republican Bonnie Garcia, an aide to a state senator, was leading Democrat Joey Acuna, a construction supervisor, in the 80th District, which encompasses all of Imperial County and part of Riverside County.

But those close races were the exceptions. Most legislative and congressional contests across California were all but decided well before election day.

That is because party leaders in the Legislature, charged with redrawing political district boundaries last year, reached a deal aimed at preserving the status quo.

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Districts held by Democrats were adjusted to maximize the election prospects of Democratic candidates, and the same was true for Republican-held districts. As a result, most of the real battles took place during the primaries.

Nonetheless, challengers mounted strong attacks even in some districts where incumbents had been aided by redistricting.

The 23rd Congressional District, for example, was redrawn into a long and narrow coastal sliver to improve the reelection chances of Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara).

But Republican challenger Beth Rogers, a Carpinteria businesswoman, mounted a strong challenge and turned the race into one of the state’s most expensive House campaigns. A wealthy member of a fourth-generation farming family, Rogers edged out Capps in fund-raising, but personally contributed about half of the $1.44 million in her treasury. Capps was running ahead in a race in which both were considered political moderates.

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Democrats, who already have simple majorities in both the state Senate and the Assembly, sought to extend their domination of both houses. They needed one additional seat to attain a two-thirds majority in the Senate and four more seats to reach that goal in the Assembly.

With two-thirds majorities in both houses and a Democrat in the governor’s office, the dominant party could pass a state budget and other key legislation without Republican cooperation.

Winning enough additional seats was considered a long shot, however, in large part because of the redistricting that was designed to keep the status quo: 25 Democrats to 15 Republicans in the Senate and 50 Democrats to 30 Republicans in the Assembly.

Although leaders of both parties embraced the redistricting, it was roundly criticized by political scientists.

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Critics said the “incumbent protection plan,” as the new political maps were quickly labeled, ensured that political leaders, not the voters, got to pick their elected officials and predicted it would further erode public interest in elections.

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Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.


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