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Mundell’s Father Won the Economics Nobel Prize

A wealthy California businessman may try to ride the state’s redistricting debate all the way to the Senate.

William Mundell (R), the head of a prosperous Los Angeles high-tech company, has been a key financial angel to the forces looking to reform the state’s Congressional and legislative redistricting process. And he admits that if redistricting reform comes to pass, he may seek to parlay his work on the issue into a run for political office next year — perhaps aiming as high as the Senate.[IMGCAP(1)]

“Right now, I’m fully focused on trying to get the [redistricting] initiative qualified” for the November 2005 ballot, Mundell said. “But I’m not at all excluding the possibility that I might jump into something else.”

Facing the daunting prospect of trying to upend popular Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) in 2006, no other serious Republicans may be willing to accept that challenge.

The redistricting fight has reached a critical point. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) wants to take the responsibility of drawing Congressional and legislative lines away from the Legislature and hand it to a panel of retired judges — and he wants new lines in place before the 2006 elections.

In the next few days, supporters expect to submit petitions containing more than 900,000 signatures to place the measure on the ballot in November. If state elections officials find that 600,000 signatures are valid, Schwarzenegger has the option of calling a special election this fall.

Mundell has set up an organization called Californians for Fair Redistricting to help get Schwarzenegger’s redistricting reform package passed. He has recruited a team of veteran operatives that includes Patrick Caddell, the wily Democratic pollster and strategist; April Lassiter, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas); and David Gilliard, a Sacramento-based consultant to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Mundell’s role in the redistricting reform fight has been compared to Issa’s in the 2003 recall of then-California Gov. Gray Davis (D). The Congressman helped seed the recall campaign with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions — an effort that hasn’t propelled him to higher office yet, but has won him gratitude from legions of Republicans.

By his own account, Mundell has personally given $150,000 to help qualify the measure for the November ballot and has raised about $1.5 million. He has appeared on numerous talk radio shows and before editorial boards across the state. And equally important to someone who is trying to become known to Golden State voters, his name has been featured prominently on 2.5 million pieces of mail that Californians for Fair Redistricting has sent out in recent months.

“He’s starting to get active in the right way,” said Tony Strickland, president of California Club for Growth, an offshoot of the national pro-supply-side organization. “I’m sure he’ll keep a large portion of his team together to move to the next thing.”

Despite Mundell’s increased visibility, many national and state Republican stalwarts are all but prepared to concede the 2006 election to Feinstein.

“At this point, to be honest, there haven’t been any substantive discussions with anyone about California,” said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Dan Schnur, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant, said that while Mundell is undeniably raising his political profile with the redistricting crusade, a run for Senate would represent “a pretty steep first step.”

The only other person seen as a possible Senate candidate in 2006 is Abel Maldonado, a highly regarded rookie state Senator who is only 37. His name is invariably mentioned whenever there is a political opening in California.

Maldonado, a close ally of Schwarzenegger’s, is a hot political property — and he could run for Senate next year without sacrificing his legislative seat. But while Maldonado has received some entreaties to run from people close to President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), he is seen as more likely to run for state insurance commissioner in 2006, figuring an unsuccessful race against Feinstein could tarnish his image.

“Someone could see running [for Senate] as a ‘building for the future’ opportunity,” said Kevin Spillane, a Republican strategist in Sacramento. “But you’d have to struggle to break 40 percent against her.”

Which is where Mundell may come in. The 44-year-old president of Vidyah Inc., an educational technology company, is the son of Robert Mundell, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and expert on international monetary policy. The younger Mundell has run for office once before — a failed race for the state Assembly against former radical icon Tom Hayden (D) two decades ago.

Despite that experience, Mundell has dabbled in politics through the years, mostly as a donor. He is close to House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) — who happens to oppose the timetable, though not the substance, of Schwarzenegger’s proposed redistricting reform.

Mundell said he was drawn to the redistricting fight because he was outraged when the latest Congressional and legislative lines were crafted after a series of compromises were reached by Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

“It was egregious, the level of abuse,” he said. “If you look at a map of California, it looks like a crazy quilt of districts. It looks nothing like community. … The system right now is dysfunctional and needs to be fixed.”

One Republican leader in the Golden State mused recently that Mundell has the ability to put “Huffington-like money” into a statewide race — a reference to the almost $30 million that then-Rep. Michael Huffington (R) spent in a vain attempt to knock off Feinstein in 1994.

Mundell did not discount the possibility that he could put some of his own money into a Senate race, but he said he is not eager to do so. As for the chances of him running?

“It really depends on how the whole [redistricting] experience goes,” he said. “We’ll just have to see. I’m not focusing on any particular office at this time.”

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