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Central Valley Shootout

Quigley, Costa Are Already in a Tough Battle for House

Fresh off the wildly unpredictable and entertaining recall election, California political professionals now turn their attention to the 2004 Congressional races, which, thanks to gerrymandering, will be largely desultory affairs.

A cadre of political reformers is seeking to change that. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Ted Costa, father of the successful movement to oust Gov. Gray Davis (D), are now working with others to put an initiative on the November 2004 statewide ballot that would take Congressional redistricting out of the hands of politicians and transfer it to a panel of judges. Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) supports the concept as well.

Because the initiative would not go into effect until next cycle, it has no bearing on 2004, when only two of the state’s 53 House races are likely to be competitive — and those battles will be in open-seat primaries.

At least one of the primaries promises to be fascinating — and potentially bloody. That’s in the 20th district, located in the Central Valley, where Rep. Cal Dooley (D) is retiring after seven terms.

Competing to replace Dooley are Lisa Quigley (D), his longtime chief of staff, and former state Sen. Jim Costa (D). Both were born and grew up in the Central Valley. Both are intimately familiar with the politics and players of the region. Both are political moderates whose profiles fit the heavily agricultural district well. And Costa is even a former Congressional staffer himself.

But because of the surprising dynamics of the race — with far fewer Democratic candidates than most observers had imagined and no serious Republican contenders to speak of — both are already all too aware that their dreams of coming to Congress are impeded only by the presence of the other in the March 2, 2004, primary. And both appear willing to go on the attack.

“I can point with great specific detail to things that I’ve done to improve the lives of people in the Valley, compared to what she’s done,” said Costa, who calls Quigley “a person who has not been in the district in 14 years.”

Quigley, 38, counters that “this election is going to be about the future and not the past,” and said a race against Costa, who spent 24 years in the state Legislature, is “frankly, my best-case scenario. It’s what I had wished for.”

The battle lines have been drawn. But the distinctions between the two candidates are not as simple as either suggests.

Costa, 51, is clearly the choice of much of the district’s political and business establishment. A third-generation farmer (his family operated a dairy farm for years, and Costa now grows almonds), he is supported by the powerful agribusiness interests that dominate the Central Valley. He has also racked up an impressive array of endorsements from fellow politicians, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), eight members of the California House delegation, and former Central Valley Reps. John Krebs (D) and Tony Coelho (D) — whom Quigley worked for when she first came to Washington fresh out of college.

Quigley conceded that Feinstein’s endorsement of her rival was “the only one that was a disappointment.”

Costa also has a wealth of government experience and a long list of accomplishments — not just the two-dozen years in the Legislature, but as an aide to Krebs and then-Rep. Bernard Sisk (D-Calif.), as chief of staff to a legislative leader in Sacramento, and as a lecturer at California State University at Fresno.

Whether it’s water, transportation, agriculture or other infrastructure issues, Costa has worked them all feverishly.

“Jim Costa is the most qualified candidate,” said a matter-of-fact California Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D), who contemplated running for the Dooley seat, when she endorsed him last month.

But Quigley is hardly a political novice. She has 14 years at Dooley’s side, and the Congressman has already raised money and agreed to stump for his protégé. Quigley said California Reps. Ellen Tauscher (D) and Jane Harman (D) have endorsed her, and she is expecting more of their colleagues to follow suit.

Quigley calls Costa’s 24 years in the state Legislature a political liability.

“If ever there was a time to be running against Sacramento, it’s now,” she said. “He’s offering more of the same. I think this electorate is looking for something different.”

Costa shrugs off that assertion, saying he believes voters may not like the Legislature but generally like their hometown legislators. He said people come up to him and assume he’s still representing them in Sacramento.

“I have the broad-based support of over 50 local elected officials,” Costa said. “They know me. They’ve worked with me. They know my approach to problem-solving. She’d love to have the support that I do.”

Quigley’s detractors also point out that she grew up in Merced, which is not in the 20th district, and has made her home in Washington, where she is married to Larry Harrington, U.S. director of the Inter-American Development Bank in the Clinton administration.

But Quigley has always voted in California and recently established residency in Fresno. She said that as a mother of two young children, she can connect with voters better than Costa can.

Quigley doesn’t just cast the primary as a case of “young versus not-so-young.” She believes that the priorities of the district have changed, and that voters will respond to the issues she’s emphasizing — health care, jobs and education — rather than traditional issues like transportation and infrastructure that are part of Costa’s résumé.

Quigley is touting her endorsement from EMILY’s List as indicative of the kind of support she’s receiving — not to mention a fount of needed campaign contributions.

“Lisa Quigley has spent the past 12 years working on legislation that really makes a difference for California’s children and families,” said EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm.

On the fundraising front, Quigley raised about $128,000 in September — most of it from a fundraiser at Dooley’s suburban Virginia home. Costa did not raise any money until after the third quarter. Quigley said she believes she’ll need $1 million. Costa said he raised more than $2 million for his winning state Senate campaign in 1994 (Senate districts in California are bigger than Congressional districts) and realizes he may have to come close to that again.

“I will not be outworked, and I will not be outraised,” he said.

There are two major media markets in the district: Fresno and Bakersfield.

Perhaps the biggest unknown in the race is how the Hispanic vote will break down. The district’s population is more than 60 percent Hispanic, and Hispanic voters represent 30 percent to 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Most political professionals were surprised when no prominent Latino officeholder decided to seek the seat, though several considered it, including Democrats Reyes, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (whose parents have endorsed Costa), state Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, state Sen. Dean Florez and Fresno County Supervisor Juan Arambula.

Quigley predicted that an endorsement from the United Farmworkers of America, the union started by Cesar Chavez and headquartered in the Valley, will be critical to the candidates’ fortunes — particularly for pulling the vote in Latino communities.

Jocelyn Sherman, a spokeswoman for the union, said Tuesday that she did not know when the UFW would make an endorsement.

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