Will Condit's troubles hurt California Democrats?

Fallout from the Chandra Levy case is forcing the party to put redistricting plans on hold, and may keep Condit's son from running for state Assembly.

Published July 12, 2001 11:02PM (EDT)

As the search for Chandra Levy continues, political shockwaves from Rep. Gary Condit's involvement in the case are rippling across California. Already, discussions are swirling in both Democratic and Republican circles about who would run for Condit's seat if fallout from his rumored affair with Levy keeps him from seeking reelection. If Condit should decide to bow out, the decision could alter the state's entire redistricting process.

Political consultant Richard Ross, who has worked for Condit, insists such speculation about Condit's future is "extremely premature."

"In the parlor game of politics, there are lots of stories being told. But voters are very fair," Ross told the Fresno Bee recently. "I would not be writing the obituary for Congressman Condit."

But the congressman's plight certainly has already affected other members of Condit's family. The congressman's son Chad, who works as an aide to Gov. Gray Davis, is said to have shelved his ambitions of running for the state Assembly next year, and members of Condit's political team, including Ross, are lining up behind other candidates.

Meanwhile, California is in the middle of redrawing its congressional districts, and Condit's political future casts a large shadow over the process. Condit is something of a legend in the San Joaquin Valley, the breadbasket of the state where a Democrat must be a moderate to win. Any political junkie in California can tell you that a Valleycrat is not exactly the same as a Democrat.

Condit is king of the Valleycrats. Though he has feuded with his party in the past -- he led an effort to oust Democratic Speaker Willie Brown in the 1980s, voted against President Clinton more often than any other member of California's congressional delegation and was the only Democratic House member to make the League of Conservation Voters' "Dirty Dozen" list of environmental polluters in 1996 -- he has been tolerated by his party. That's because a so-called Blue Dog like Condit is the only kind of Democrat that has seemed to have a prayer in that district. While other Democrats in the Central Valley find themselves in perennial political dogfights, Condit has enjoyed perfect job security. He didn't even draw a Republican opponent in 1992.

Part of it has to do with Condit's district, which has both seen an uptick in Latino voter registration and been flooded with migrants from the more liberal, and more expensive, Bay Area. Both trends have helped that district remain a haven for conservative Democrats, as it has been for the last half-century. Before Condit, the area was represented by moderate Democrat Tony Coelho. But not all Democrats run well in the district. President Bush got nearly 53 percent of the district's vote last year, even as Al Gore carried California by 12 points.

But much of Condit's job security has to do with his own power and popularity. Although he feuded with Willie Brown, he was an early backer of Gov. Davis, coming out for Davis during the Democratic primary when other Democrats in the area flirted with billionaire candidate Al Checchi. When Davis assembled a panel to oversee water and agriculture policy shortly after being elected, Condit was named co-chairman. The Democrat currently in Condit's old Assembly seat, Dennis Cardoza, is in many ways a Condit clone politically. Chad Condit even worked for Cardoza before moving to the governor's office in 1999.

Republicans are carefully beginning to line up for a possible congressional run in that district. State Sen. Dick Monteith has already said he would not run against Condit, but is expected to get into the race if Condit opts not to run.

That may create a problem for Democratic map-makers, who are effectively in control of the state's redistricting process with a Democrat in the governor's office and Democratic majorities in both legislative houses. One Democratic staffer said "there are some people who are talking about collapsing that seat, and trying to take a shot at [Rep. Richard] Pombo," a Republican congressman whose district lies just to the north of Condit's.

In effect, the staffer said, Democrats are looking to take Democrats out of some surrounding districts, including the Condit seat, to take a shot at knocking off Pombo.

Pombo is a strident conservative, perhaps more conservative than his Sacramento-area district, and Democrats believe Pombo could be vulnerable with a little jiggering of the maps. But if Condit doesn't run, it may not be as easy for the party to peel off Democrats from his district, since his successor wouldn't have his personal popularity. "Without Condit, there may not be spare Democrats lying around," the staffer said.

But one of the Democratic map-makers, Kam Kuwata, dismissed all the speculation swirling around Condit and redistricting. "I think you have all these analysts saying it's this kind of district, or that kind of district, but the fact is that seat hasn't been held by a Republican in at least 50 years. It's a Democratic seat," he said. "All the geniuses in Washington, D.C., and on these cable shows, I don't know how they derive the info. The only thing that is obvious and factual is that it's been in Democratic hands for some time now."

Still, the issue may not be whether Democrats can hold the Condit seat without him, but whether his departure may hurt Democrats' chances of knocking off Pombo, or other California Republicans.

When asked if Pombo felt like a target for Democrats, his chief of staff Steve Ding said, "Obviously, it's something we've considered. One thing about being a fly on the wall in this process is that none of us have a pen in our hand. We can all float proposals, ideas, what have you, but when it comes down to it, we as Republicans have to rely on 30 Assembly votes and 14 state Senate votes." Democrats have a 50-30 advantage in the California Assembly, and a 26-14 advantage in the state Senate.

Like all things related to Condit, the rumor mill is on overdrive, while facts remain as scarce as clues about Chandra Levy's disappearance. "Everything is speculation," Ding said. "If you had to track the rumors you hear every 15 seconds on reapportionment you'd lose track in an hour. Every possibility has been aired."

But Ding acknowledged that with his employer's district trending Republican, if Democrats want to go after Pombo, they'll have to take votes from some other district. "In 1992, when Pombo won that district, it was a 37 percent Republican district," he said. "Now it's 43 percent, and getting more Republican all the time along with the outlying areas. In order to go after Pombo, they're going to have to hurt a Democrat that surrounds him."

While the speculation may be premature, it is undeniably increasing in California political circles. The Condit story has hit the big time, even becoming a staple of late night talk-show monologues in recent days.

Joking about the heat recently, David Letterman said, "I was sweating more than Gary Condit."

That, said one Democratic staffer, is not a good sign. "If you make Letterman," he said, "you're fucked."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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