Republican family feud
Party solidarity? Ha! In the wild and woolly primary for California’s 3rd Congressional District, a trio of Republican candidates are engaged in a pitched battle.
Rico Oller clearly was in his element in the gun store, even if he looked a little out of place as the only person wearing a suit and tie. Walking into Badger John’s Huntin’ Stuff in the Arden-Arcade area, he greeted a group of supporters with enthusiastic handshakes and then gravitated to a counter. An array of guns was displayed on the wall behind it, and the Republican state senator asked to see one of the shotguns. Store owner John Barritt, wearing a camouflage vest, handed it over. Oller examined the gun, a new Beretta model, the Xtrema.
“Outsells every shotgun in the store,” Barritt said.
“Oh, I love it,” Oller replied.
A lifelong outdoorsman who likes to tell stories about hunting trips and the dogs that accompany him, Oller is tall, fit and broad-shouldered and still looks somehow boyish at 45. Throughout the years, he’s earned a reputation among Republican peers as someone whose strong, tenacious campaign style is driven by ceaseless ambition.
Holding the gun, Oller examined it expertly, checking its sights and feeling its weight, and then he passed it back to Barritt. “I have a whole bunch of the Browning humpbacks,” Oller said.
Oller, who is now running hard for Congress, was not there to pick up a shotgun, but to pick up an endorsement from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA).
The NRA is now backing him over two Republican rivals in the March 2 primary: former Congressman and state Attorney General Dan Lungren and multimillionaire businesswoman Mary Ose. The seat is being vacated by Ose’s brother, Doug, who is sticking to his pledge to serve only three terms.
With its endorsement, the NRA mailed thousands of postcards urging members in the congressional district to support Oller, and helped round up 60 volunteer precinct walkers.
Political junkies have been watching the race take shape for weeks, but as election day nears, it’s going to be hard for even the most tuned-out voter to avoid drinking from the firehose of political advertising that will spew. Local media will be devoting plenty of ink and airtime to the race. All three candidates and the interest groups that back them will be flooding the airwaves with ads, as well as filling mailboxes from the Delta to the Sierras with junk mail—some of it inflammatory.
As it unfolds, observers will have front-row seats for a great bout that pits two sides of the party against one another. For years, moderate and conservative factions in the California Republican Party have been wrestling over the steering wheel. Some of the conflict died with the ascent of the new governor, a social liberal whose power keeps hardliners quiet. There’s also a new state party chairman, Palo Alto attorney Duf Sundheim, who’s less interested in right-wing dogma than in winning a few races for a change. But in this race, the fight over who really owns the soul of the Republican party will be waged.
This primary is one of the most contested in the country, and some influential Republicans in Sacramento and Washington have taken the unusual step of choosing sides in it. The vacancy is one of just 13 Republican retirements this year, out of 228 GOP House members. Campaign spending by candidates and interest groups during the primary will total several million dollars.
The 3rd District is solidly Republican. So, whoever wins the primary almost certainly wins the seat. Congress doesn’t have term limits, so an officeholder who doesn’t get arrested probably can occupy a safe seat indefinitely.
Unlike his opponents, Oller doesn’t come from a cushy background. He grew up learning plumbing and contracting by working for relatives. He graduated from California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock and lived above a Modesto garage by the railroad tracks during his freshman year. In his 20s, Oller started a small insulation-and-drywall business that now employs 50 and grosses $8 million a year.
Mary Ose, who was the last to enter the race, is seen as the wild card. She has no experience in politics or government, which she’s trying to use to her advantage, by painting herself as an outsider. But she’d have no problem leveling the playing field the same way her brother did: by tapping the Ose clan’s vast real-estate fortune for $1 million or more to finance the campaign.
In order to woo the kind of voters who turn out for a Republican primary, the name of the game is to be the most conservative candidate. President George W. Bush and GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon lost the state but won handily in the district, in which more than three-quarters of the voting-age population is white.
Oller is farthest right. Last year, he sponsored the bill that repealed Senate Bill 60, the illegal-immigrant-driver bill, and he’s running hardest on a send-’em-back illegal-immigration stance. If elected, Oller tells everyone, he’ll write a bill to bar any state from giving driver licenses to illegal immigrants.
Lungren, by far the most experienced and accomplished politico, would seem on paper to have the edge. But he hasn’t lived in Sacramento for years, and around the city, it’s almost impossible to find anyone involved with Republican Party politics who thinks he has much of a chance—or who wants him to win. Say the name “Lungren,” and GOP partisans still cringe, remembering the debacle of his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, which left Republicans powerless for five years.
Republican insiders and die-hards are flocking to Oller instead. His campaign is heavily armed with hundreds of grassroots supporters who have showered him with small donations and volunteered to walk precincts and stuff envelopes. On recent Saturdays, Oller has had as many as 80 and 100 volunteers (far more than Lungren and Ose combined) at his campaign office, where he grills steaks for everyone. As the election nears, it’s clear in Republican circles that tax-cuttin’, gun-totin’ Oller is the real conservative.
Nathan Gonzales, political editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan newsletter in Washington, D.C., that covers Congressional races, said Oller has an advantage because the district leans so conservatively and because Oller already represents most of it as a state senator. The California Target Book, another nonpartisan source, also gives Oller the edge. According to analysis of votes cast in the precincts that now make up the heavily Republican congressional district, Lungren actually lost by a slim margin to Davis in 1998, Target Book editor Tony Quinn said.
Interestingly, recent polling showed conflicting results. Each poll was taken by highly respected GOP pollsters on the same days. Oller’s, by Public Opinion Strategies, showed him up 33 percent to Lungren’s 29 percent and Ose’s 13 percent. Lungren’s poll, by Bob Moore, showed Lungren with a larger margin: 33 percent to Oller’s 26 percent and Ose’s 9 percent.
Although mostly suburbanites make up the district, Oller’s foothills persona seems to be a ready-made contrast to his city-folk opponents.
Before leaving the hunting store that day, Oller broke down and added another gun to his collection: a short-barrel Magnum that cost $1,400. Then he headed back to the Capitol in his new Toyota Tacoma pickup. It’s gold and loaded with all kinds of options that make it the envy of any outdoorsman: KC rally lights, a brush bar, custom taillights, step sides, a couple of inches of lift and a front-bumper-mounted winch.
“You gotta enjoy life,” Oller said, heading toward the freeway. “If you don’t, no one else is going to enjoy your life either.” It sounded suspiciously like a dig at Lungren, who is known for his prickly personality. Oller is one of the most outgoing GOP lawmakers in Sacramento, constantly telling jokes and stories. He uses folksy terms like “fixin’ to” and “dad-gum” without apparent irony.
Meanwhile, both the Oller and Lungren campaigns have accused one another of dirty campaigning. Oller believes a hit piece full of rumors about his personal life that was faxed around Capitol Hill came from Lungren’s team. At the same time, Lungren has accused Oller of sending out a racially insensitive hit piece about his immigration stance. As the race heats up, Oller will need all his firepower to get and keep the lead.
When all three candidates appeared together for the first time at a forum, Lungren didn’t seem too excited to be there. As Lungren took his seat at the table in front, he set in front of him two identical silver cell phones, his gold watch and a silver pen. As others spoke, Lungren seemed uneasy, leaning forward in his folding chair and then back, crossing his arms and shifting his weight. He’d been to more important meetings.
Blessed with every advantage, Lungren, 57, climbed to the top of the Republican Party in California. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University’s law school, he began his political career at 27 by running for Congress from his hometown of Long Beach. The young attorney, whose dad was Richard Nixon’s close friend and personal physician, lost by just 2,866 votes (he still remembers) but came back two years later to beat the same sitting Democrat. After a decade in Congress, he quit when former Governor George Deukmejian nominated him to replace the state’s treasurer, Jesse Unruh, who had died in office. Senate Democrats blocked Lungren’s confirmation, so Lungren ran instead for attorney general in 1990. Throughout the years, he hobnobbed with Republican presidents, governors and lawmakers. Since his 1998 loss in the governor’s race and a subsequent stint as a talk-radio host, Lungren has been working at one of the top lobbying firms in Washington. For the first time in his life, he said, he’s making good money by working to influence his old pals on Capitol Hill. If he’d won that race for governor, he might be laying the groundwork now for a presidential bid.
On the day of the forum, Lungren found himself not inside the beltway but in Galt, sitting in front of a bunch of senior citizens and small-business owners. The event, put on by the city’s chamber of commerce, took place in a small building behind an old church near the railroad tracks. And instead of laughing at Ronald Reagan’s jokes on Air Force One (as he’s doing in a picture shown on his Web site), Lungren was listening to some fringe candidate, who looked like Rip van Winkle, read an obscure statement about Libertarian ideals.
Also, there was a fourth Republican candidate, Richard Frankhuizen, and the sole Democrat in the race, Gabe Castillo. Frankhuizen, an engineer from Folsom, hasn’t raised any money or hired campaign staff. And although Castillo constantly refers to himself as a “conservative Democrat,” the Carmichael financial-services-firm owner has about as much chance of winning the strongly Republican district as does the Libertarian guy, perennial candidate Art Tuma.
As the candidates talked, the 40 or so people in the audience sat at folding tables in the low-ceilinged room and munched on sandwiches. An American flag stood in the corner, and a painting of the Virgin Mary hung on the wall. Lungren put his gold watch back on and twisted his silver pen. One of his phones vibrated with an incoming call, and he quickly shoved it in his blazer pocket. Then he leaned back again, with his arms folded, and sighed and looked around.
When Lungren’s turn came, he stood and smiled. “I present experience and performance,” he said, his left hand in his pocket and his right hand karate-chopping the air with each point. The statement pretty much sums up his campaign.
While Oller and Ose both talked up their longtime roots in the district—Ose is a lifelong Sacramentan, and Oller lives in San Andreas in Calaveras County—Lungren remained silent on that point. One of Lungren’s main liabilities is the carpetbagger issue. Not only did Lungren recently move back to California to run for Congress, but he also sold his home outside the district in Roseville and bought a new one inside the district in Gold River.
The district cuts across the midsection of the state, stretching from the Napa County line to the Nevada border. Starting in the rural areas of Solano County, it curves around heavily Democratic Sacramento to pick up parts of Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova and all of Carmichael, Folsom and Citrus Heights. It continues into the foothills to take in Amador County and Calaveras County and then over the top of the Sierras to remote Alpine County.
Eighty-five percent of the district’s population lives in Sacramento County. Most of the district overlaps with Oller’s Senate district. But by a quirk of redistricting, he’s never appeared on the ballot in most of his current district, which was drawn after he was elected to the state Senate in 2000.
When Doug Ose first won the House seat in 1998, it was a completely different district. Back then, it stretched from eastern Solano County up along Interstate 5 through Yolo, Colusa, Glenn and Tehama counties. Now, little of the new district overlaps with the old one. In addition, the old district was much more moderate. Democrat Vic Fazio held it before Doug Ose. Redistricting made it more conservative.
Because the district moved around, none of the current candidates is really known much better than the others. Mary Ose has the name. Oller represents the district. Lungren, after statewide runs, has the edge in name ID, but Oller and Ose each can raise their profiles significantly—by spending money on advertising. And by all indications, it looks like Oller and Ose will do just that.
In the fund-raising race, Oller led as of January 1, the latest date for which totals are available, having raised $484,961. Lungren was next, with $258,279. Ose reported raising just $62,683. Oller and Ose each gave themselves $250,000.
There’s a new wrinkle in federal campaign-finance law that will come into play if one of the candidates taps his or her own bank account for $350,000 or more. Under the “millionaire’s clause,” a provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill, a candidate who reaches that threshold must file a public disclosure within 24 hours. Once that happens, that candidate’s opponents may triple the size of contributions they take from individuals, from $2,000 to $6,000 per person. It’s a rule that can be manipulated, because the longer someone waits to trigger the clause, the shorter the time other candidates have to catch up. Ose is the only one expected to trigger the clause.
Wealthy as she may be, Ose is a moderate. That has won her the backing of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a D.C.-based group that backs moderates in primaries. But, again, in this district, conservative counts.
In addition to the NRA, Oller has the backing of two important conservative groups. One is the D.C.-based Club for Growth, a limited-government group that backs conservatives over moderates in GOP races. Another Oller-backer is the California Republican Assembly (CRA), a statewide grassroots group of pro-gun, anti-tax conservatives. Aaron Park, president of the CRA’s Placer County chapter, rattled off a list of Lungren’s transgressions, citing immigration, guns and other issues. “Dan Lungren abandoned the Republican Party,” Park said. He also remains bitter about Lungren’s 1998 loss, which he said “took down the entire Republican Party with him.”
Ose, 53, was the last to join the race, announcing her candidacy just days before the December filing deadline.
Her announcement that she would challenge two big-name Republicans had some party insiders wondering if her brother had pushed her into the contest. Some Republican insiders say Doug Ose still resents Lungren for leaving the state Republican Party holding the bag on a six-figure debt after it helped finance his gubernatorial bid.
“Lungren wasn’t much of a friend to [Doug] Ose in the past,” said one Republican source who knows both and who didn’t want to be identified. “Those two had a parting of the ways when Lungren was running for governor.” Lungren and Doug Ose both deny there’s any bad blood between them.
Mary Ose, the thinking goes, is a moderate who’ll take votes from Lungren.
“Mary doomed Dan,” said one high-ranking GOP state lawmaker.
“Lungren can’t win” with Ose in the race, said a top Republican operative.
Ose said running was her idea, not her brother’s.
The Ose campaign headquarters on Fair Oaks Boulevard in Carmichael is in an old Blockbuster video store. The colorful paint on the walls left by the previous tenant gives the empty space a cheerful feel.
On a Saturday afternoon six weeks before election day, Ose was there with her fund-raiser and only two volunteers, who were preparing a mass mailing of 1,000 letters from Doug Ose, urging voters to support his sister and give her money. Her daughter was also there. Jennifer Ose, 26, is a former Goldman Sachs equities trader who now works on the campaign.
Mary Ose is hard to read, revealing almost nothing of herself beyond what she wishes to put forward. In person, she’s very petite and is trim in an athletic way. She’s both soft-spoken and well-spoken. Even talking casually, she chooses her words very carefully, never digressing or falling back on throwaway phrases or hollow fillers. She comes across as smart and driven, which her résumé suggests, as well. As an undergraduate, she studied sociology at Cornell University. She later earned a master’s in business administration at California State University, Sacramento, and then a law degree from Boalt Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.
On the floor, there was a stack of big, blue, 5-foot-by-5-foot signs that proclaimed “Ose Congress” in big, white letters. The signs were left over from one of Doug Ose’s previous campaigns, according to the tiny white letters of the fine-print disclaimer at the bottom of each sign.
Mary Ose said one of the hardest parts of her decision to run was knowing that she’d be giving up some of her privacy. She calls herself a very private person and won’t allow interviews to be tape-recorded.
Although she’s running as an outsider, she doesn’t have the polish of her two experienced rivals. In debates, her answers lack specifics, and she often returns to her tightly scripted points. In one community forum, she flubbed the answer and then asked: “Can you come back to me?”
As she spoke that Saturday in her office, a campaign volunteer knelt on the floor nearby with a stack of those giant blue “Ose Congress” signs. On each sign, he covered Doug Ose’s name and the rest of the small print by using a blue Magic Marker.
As an unknown, Mary Ose has been defined largely by her brother’s positions. But although she said they are “very much alike philosophically,” she wouldn’t say specifically how she’s different.
Because she was so late to join the race, her only high-profile backer is her brother. But as she appears more and more likely to be the also-ran in the race, she does have one advantage: She can sit back while the other two slug it out.
Oller is well-known as one of the hardest-working campaigners around. He has never lost an election, having won three tough races in a row: for Assembly in 1996 and 1998 and for Senate in 2000. But now, some of the same rumors that dogged Oller in those past races are re-emerging.
In early January, someone faxed a three-page memo to congressional offices and political action committees in Washington, D.C. The memo outlines what must be the full extent of opposition research on Oller, bringing up allegations dating back to 1988. According to the memo, that’s when Oller’s wife, Londa, filed for divorce and requested a restraining order against her husband, alleging physical abuse. The two later reconciled, and last year they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary—a fact that’s mentioned prominently inside Oller’s campaign brochure, alongside a picture of the family.
Oller dismissed the charges. “This stuff’s been used in every election, and it’s failed to be successful. It’s pretty hard to make a case against somebody being a bad guy toward his wife when they’re married and have obviously a loving relationship,” he said.
Oller acknowledges the separation. “My wife and I, like every married couple, have been through hard times and have struggled,” he said. But violence toward his wife “absolutely never happened,” he said.
He said the memo recycles information that was used against him during his 2000 Senate campaign, in which he faced Republican Assemblyman Bernie Richter, who died during the campaign. Richter’s campaign consultants were Wayne Johnson and Tim Clark of Johnson Clark Associates, one of the most prominent Republican firms in Sacramento. This year, Johnson Clark is Lungren’s political consultant.
Johnson said the faxes “didn’t come from us. Absolutely not.”
Lungren also denied any connection. “Before I even had a campaign, I was told that Rico’s people were saying that my campaign was distributing it,” he said.
Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, is a veteran lawmaker who has known both Lungren and Oller for several years. He’s endorsed Oller, who he calls a “scrappy campaigner.” Lungren, Haynes said, has a history of clashing with fellow party members. “He’s a nice fellow, and I like him a lot, but … Dan’s difficult to deal with on a personal level,” Haynes said. “A colleague of mine who will remain unnamed got so angry with him when he ran for governor that he said, ‘I hope he loses.’” Haynes’ remarks about Lungren were echoed by many other GOP players, including lawmakers and campaign operatives.
Lungren lost the 1998 race to Gray Davis by nearly 20 points. Republicans lost their 16-year hold on the governor’s office and also gave up several seats in the Legislature.
Republicans still cringe when they remember Lungren’s worst mistakes, such as running TV ads about his pro-life stance in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive—and liberal—media markets in the country.
“People at the time were saying that it was his election to lose, and he did,” said Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Roseville. Leslie ran for lieutenant governor that year, losing to Cruz Bustamante. Leslie remains friends with Lungren but is now backing Oller.
Although Lungren has the support of several House GOP heavyweights, many of whom are his old pals from his days on the Hill, Oller boasts the support of four key Northern California Republican congressmen from surrounding districts: John Doolittle of Rocklin, Wally Herger of Marysville, Richard Pombo of Stockton and George Radanovich of Mariposa. Lungren has eight California GOP House members, but they’re all Southern Californians like Lungren.
Like Oller, Lungren loves to drop the names of his high-profile backers. But Lungren’s endorsements won’t necessarily play well in the district, said Gonzales, of The Rothenberg Political Report. “Do people know who [House Financial Services Committee Chairman] Mike Oxley of Ohio is, and is that going to make them want to vote for Dan Lungren? I don’t know that it holds a lot of weight,” he said.
Doolittle, who ranks fifth in the House Republican leadership, recruited Oller, a longtime friend. Oller also has almost every prominent Republican in the region behind him, as well as every single Republican state senator and almost all Assembly Republicans.
Oller also has the support of two of Lungren’s former allies: Ken Khachigian and Dave Stirling.
Khachigian has advised California’s biggest Republican names: Nixon, Reagan, Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. He also was the strategist for Lungren’s successful runs for attorney general in 1990 and 1994, but the two later had a falling out. “Dan and I parted ways in 1995,” he said, refusing to elaborate. “I was disappointed that Dan got in,” Khachigian said. “He could easily be called a carpetbagger.”
Stirling was Lungren’s deputy attorney general and the 1998 GOP nominee to be the next attorney general. Stirling wouldn’t say why he backed away from Lungren. Some Republican leaders said privately that Stirling blames Lungren for his loss. “There is a story there, but I’m not going to get into it,” Stirling said. “That would take away from Rico.”
Lungren’s new home in Gold River is in a gated community just off Sunrise Boulevard. Inside the gate, brown 1970s-era homes crowd the circular drive, but there is little to see except walls, fences and garage doors. Each of the identical houses faces inward to a small courtyard.
In Lungren’s living room one weekday afternoon, a muted television showed the Kings beating the pants off the Clippers. On the coffee table were country-themed magazines with titles like Perfect Horse and Western Horseman. The bookshelf next to the television was decidedly GOP-themed, with a handful of elephant figurines and a framed photograph of Dan; his wife, Bobbi; Vice President Dick Cheney; and Cheney’s wife, Lynne. Lungren served in Congress with Cheney. It bothers Lungren that Oller now calls him a moderate.
“Dick Cheney called me a week or so ago,” Lungren said, leaning back on the couch in jeans and a blue, flannel shirt. “He asked how things were going, and I told him one of my opponents is accusing me of being a liberal in Republican circles. And he said, ‘Oh my God, what would they call me? You and I voted exactly the same in our 10 years.’”
Lungren invoked the holiest name, as he does frequently. “I was endorsed by Ronald Reagan, I think every single time I ran, primary and general. I campaigned with Ronald Reagan, I carried important legislation for Ronald Reagan, and one of the last events he ever did was a fund-raiser for me down in Los Angeles when I ran for attorney general. So, I have the bona fides,” Lungren said.
“Anybody who says that I’m not a conservative has got to be so far out, I don’t know where they are.”
Lungren has on his side another one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas of Bakersfield. Thomas, however, is a moderate, while Doolittle is known as one of the most socially conservative in Congress.
On guns (one of the issues Lungren gets hammered on by Oller and the NRA), Lungren says he enforced gun laws as attorney general and that it made some people unhappy. Lungren’s stance on guns also is influenced by personal experiences. His grandfather died of an accidental gunshot. And Lungren was at a San Francisco office building in 1993 one hour before a gunman killed eight people at 101 California Street—including two who had just finished lunch with Lungren, then the attorney general. “I believe in the Second Amendment,” he said, “but I don’t think you have the right to have a bazooka or flamethrower or machine gun in your backyard.”
Although all three candidates had been overly civil to one another during previous candidate forums, the tensions between Oller and Lungren boiled over last week. In a downtown hotel ballroom packed with hundreds of Sacramento’s most prominent Republicans, the two traded jabs on illegal immigration.
Oller started it, bringing up Lungren’s work in Congress to pass a major 1986 amnesty bill for undocumented immigrants. Oller accused Lungren of opening the floodgates. “I’m going to hold you accountable,” Oller said.
“Absolutely not true,” Lungren shot back.
When the candidates got a chance to question one another, Lungren and Ose both attacked Oller on a hit-piece mailer his campaign sent out a couple of days before.
In bold lettering on the front, the four-page mailer proclaims that “Dan Lungren voted to give illegal aliens U.S. citizenship.” Next to the text is a big photo of someone in a ski mask and a head covering that suggest it’s supposed to be a terrorist. Superimposed on the terrorist’s head covering are shadowy Latino-looking figures who appear to be sneaking across the border into the United States.
Lungren waved the mailer to the crowd. “Here you have Hispanics in the turban of the Taliban, and this in an area where a member of the Sikh community was beaten three days after 9/11 because he wore nothing more than a turban,” he said, turning to face Oller. “I’ve read your polls, I know what you’re doing. It’s much easier to come up here and say let’s get that applause line and get fear and strike a lot of madness out there.”
Oller was unrepentant. “The votes taken by Congressman Lungren have resulted in far more people coming to this country unlawfully. I stand by everything in this flier,” he said.
With less than three weeks until election day, there’s bound to be more verbal sparring like that.
But Oller just wants it to be done with and for his seat in Washington to be assured.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the candidate flipped steaks on a barbecue in the parking lot at his campaign headquarters. He seemed pained by the accusations circulating about his personal life. “I’m going to be so glad when this is over,” he said.
He easily could have been speaking for either of his opponents.