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Calif. Special: Big Field But No Contest

A dozen candidates are competing in the special election next Tuesday to replace the late Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.). But unless some accident of Biblical proportions takes place, Matsui’s 60-year-old widow Doris, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former Clinton administration official, should win handily.

“I don’t think there are many people in town who doubt what the outcome will be,” said Timothy Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies in Sacramento.

Still, the field of 12 includes several unusual candidates — and some odd pairings.

Two electricians are in the race. Two other candidates bill themselves as peace activists. Two officials of the same Sacramento law school are running. And both of them are named Padilla. (They’re father and daughter.)

Rounding out the field are a potter, a bounty hunter and former ballboy for the Sacramento Kings who also boasts that he was the team manager of the University of California men’s basketball team when NBA star Jason Kidd was playing there.

Colorful as the field appears to be, it may be most notable for its sincerity.

A few of the candidates sincerely believe that they are attracting enough grass-roots support to have a chance, however slim, of upsetting the well-funded and establishment-backed Matsui.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said John Thomas Flynn, California’s chief information officer under former Gov. Pete Wilson (R), and one of five Republicans in the race.

Under California rules for special elections, all candidates will appear on one ballot, regardless of party. If Matsui gets 50 percent of the vote in the all-party primary, then she will join the 109th Congress immediately. If she is held below 50 percent, then the top finishers from each political party will advance to a May 3 runoff.

Even is she fails to win the first-round vote, Matsui is running in a district where 53 percent of the registered voters are Democrats, making her the heavy favorite in a runoff.

In a way, Matsui’s biggest victory has already been achieved. It came right after her husband died on New Year’s Day, when powerful local officials, including state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D) and former state Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D), chose not to run in the special election. Their decisions paved the way for Matsui’s all-but-certain victory.

Still, the Republican dream of forcing a runoff depends mostly on the success of one of the Padillas: law school dean Julie Padilla, a self-styled “progressive Democrat” who by anecdotal accounts is running second.

Under the GOP’s dream scenario, Padilla would fare especially well in liberal precincts and on college campuses, based on her calls for universal health care and a quick military exit from Iraq. This, they reckon, could pull enough Democratic votes from Matsui to keep her below 50 percent.

“Julie’s our friend,” said Chad Tapp, campaign manager for Shane Singh, one of the Republicans in the race.

Even Padilla conceded that it could happen. From her perspective, she said, it’s not the ideal result, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing, either.

“I’m not in this to delay the pain,” she said. “I’m not in this to create a runoff that I’m not in. I’m in this to create a runoff that I am in. But there is something to creating a runoff that I’m not in, just to create more transparency.”

For the primary at least, Padilla has the wholehearted support of her father, Independent candidate Leonard Padilla, a nationally known bounty hunter who is a frequent candidate for local office and one of Sacramento’s most famous characters.

The elder Padilla is chairman of the board of the Lorenzo Patiño School of Law at Northern California University, the unaccredited institution where his daughter is dean. Leonard Padilla is considerably more conservative than his daughter, and he has vowed to run an aggressive race against her if they both make the runoff.

But for now, he is telling potential supporters that a vote for Julie Padilla in the primary is a vote to extend the debate into May.

So with two Padillas stumping for one — and thus creating the potential to draw Matsui into a runoff — the race to be the top finishing Republican is in some ways the most interesting.

Flynn, based on his government experience, seems to be the nominal favorite. But Singh, the former Kings’ ballboy who is now a lawyer in Sacramento, is also attracting notice.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R), who represents an adjoining district, has been making appearances with Singh, Tapp said, and Singh — who grew up in Sacramento in a family of immigrants from Fiji — is arguing that as a nonwhite political moderate, he is best equipped to take on Matsui in the general election.

Flynn, meanwhile, has been running as if he is already in a general election, issuing dozens of news releases blasting Matsui. He challenged her to several early debates, an offer she rebuffed. He has tried to shine a light on her recent lucrative real estate sales and suggested that, given the tens of thousands of dollars she has raised from her fellow D.C. lobbyists, would be beholden to special interests if she were to serve in Congress.

“I don’t think the citizens of Sacramento are willing to hand someone the seat,” Flynn said, in a statement echoed by many of the other candidates.

But in recent years, Californians have shown a willingness to elect widows to the seats held by their deceased husbands. The delegation currently includes Reps. Mary Bono (R) and Lois Capps (D).

In 26 years in Congress, Robert Matsui “was respected and he was beloved,” Hodson said. He added: “Julie Padilla is not a credible candidate, and neither is her father as an Independent and neither are the Republicans.”

But despite Matsui’s many obvious advantages — the golden last name, the $700,000 she has raised and the universal support she enjoys from the Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C., and in California — she has not run a flawless campaign.

Matsui at first was reluctant to campaign, giving her opponents an opening to complain that she was expecting a coronation. The fact that she refused to debate until just last weekend added fuel to those arguments.

Matsui has also caught flak for divesting herself of two lucrative properties in the Sacramento area as soon as she became a candidate. If it was a conflict of interest for her to hold those properties as a Congressional candidate, Flynn charged, then surely it was a conflict to hold them when she was a Congressman’s wife.

Matsui has never fully explained how she came to be in a partnership with some of Sacramento’s most powerful real estate developers.

Yet for all the rookie mistakes, and despite the bumpy transition from Congressional wife to Congressional widow to Congressional candidate, Matsui’s weeks-long advertising blitz should smooth the way to victory. In it, she talks about her ability to pick up her husband’s fight for the district’s priorities.

Julie Padilla has been able to afford only a few cable TV spots, and Flynn only began advertising on radio this week.

“We’re certainly confident,” said Nick Pappas, a spokesman for Matsui. “But we’re not taking anything for granted.”

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