Politics 2003Week of May 26


"Like most parents, Lynnda and I have impressed upon our two daughters the importance of promises made and promises kept," declared Rep. Doug Ose (R.-Calif.) last week. "Honoring such values binds family, friends and elected leaders and those they serve."

With that, the congressman from the Sacramento-based 3rd District told reporters that he would honor the promise he made when first elected in 1998 and step down after three terms. At the same time, real estate developer and moderate Republican Ose (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 68%) also pulled the plug on a months-old exploratory campaign for the seat of Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and thus will be running for nothing in 2004.

The immediate political talk in Washington and Sacramento was which Republican would emerge on top in the March ’04 primary for the nomination in a district that George W. Bush swept with 55% of the vote in 2000 and where the ranks of GOP voters were further enhanced by redistricting in ’01. As they have been since Ose began exploring a Senate bid last fall, the eyes of most local pundits and pols were on stalwart conservative State Sen. Thomas "Rico" Oller within hours of the congressman’s announced exit. Oller, the most outspoken Senate enemy of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’s proposed tax increases (Oller and Davis went head-to-head in a nationally televised forum on state economic turmoil hosted by Peter Jennings on ABC News May 21), has long been considered the heir apparent to Ose-in part because his senate district includes 90% of the U.S. House district. Indeed, in the weekend following Ose’s announcement, such prominent area business leaders as auto dealer Paul Snyder, insurance executive Dwight Halvorson, and Ken DeNio of the Farmer’s Market in Roseville weighed in strongly for Oller. Moreover, U.S. Representatives John Doolittle, Wally Herger and Richard Pombo all endorsed fellow conservative Republican Oller-who has yet to formerly declare his intentions.

"My family is on board and I want to do it," the 44-year-old Oller told me, but added that he would make a "final decision, one way or another, in about 45 days."

But, contrary to the long-accepted wisdom in Golden State GOP circles, Oller’s succession to Ose in Congress is not a slam dunk. In words that stunned most observers, a still-remembered Republican figure from the past revealed that he would soon begin polling on a possible bid in the 3rd District next year. Dan Lungren, former U.S. representative (1978-88), state attorney general (1990-98) and losing opponent to Davis in 1998, told me last week that he was considering a comeback bid to Congress from the 3rd District, which is 300 miles from the Long Beach area district he represented 15 years ago.


"It’s about freedom for me," is how Rico Oller likes to characterize his political philosophy, paraphrasing the title of M. Stanton Evans’ classic work The Theme Is Freedom. The son of a dashing OSS agent in World War II was a languages specialist and decoder ("Dad studied language from Choctaw Indian to Spanish"), young Oller grew up in locales from Barcelona Spain to Northern California, where he spent his adult life. In striking contrast to other younger Republican office-holders in California who have primarily held political jobs, Oller launched an insulation contracting company and a building materials business before he won his first term in the state legislature in 1996.

Like former Rep. (1996-2000) Jim Rogan (R.-Calif.) and 1992 Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bruce Herschensohn, Oller has a fierce following among Republican grass-roots activists in good part because of his forcefulness in articulating the conservative message. Strongly pro-life ("there’s only one exception for me and that’s the life of the mother-where another life is involved"), he has labored for such major statewide initiatives as those banning bilingual education and affirmative action in state jobs and contracts, and Proposition 187, the 1994 measure to bar tax-paid education and non-essential health care to illegal immigrants. Oller still addresses the "I-word" with vigor at a time when most California Republicans shy from the issue He clearly declares: "If someone’s here illegally, send ’em back. If we open our borders, we won’t have a country." Oller also still supports the term limits voters imposed on state legislators and statewide officials in 1991.


"I didn’t know there was anything in the Constitution about heirs-apparent to congressional seats," Dan Lungren said to me, responding to published stories that Oller was, in effect, just going to inherit the Ose seat. The former state attorney general, whom I reached at his Washington, D.C., office with the lobbying firm of Venable, Baetjer, Howard and Civiletti, confirmed that he would soon be taking a poll on his chances of returning to Congress from the 3rd District and, if the results were favorable, he would soon begin the "exploratory process." However, he has put his house in Roseville (which is just outside the boundaries of the 3rd District) up for sale and plans to buy a house within Ose’s district.

Before joining Venable last year and taking up residence in the Northern Virginia house he also owns, Lungren lived in the Sacramento area for 15 years-"going back to when I was first elected attorney general in 1990. It’s where my family lived the longest." He also pointed out that other California congressmen-notably Republican Rep. (1976-82, 1984-96) Bob Dornan and late Democratic Rep. (1960-70, 1972-2001) George Brown-ran and were elected in completely different districts from those they represented before a gap in their tenure. (True, but both Dornan and Brown were elected from districts no more than 50 miles from the ones they formerly represented, whereas a "Rep. Lungren II" would represent a district more than 300 miles from his former turf.) But the complaints that are heard among GOPers about Lungren-and they are particularly vocal in expressing them at state party conventions-have less to do with geography than with his ’98 bid for governor and some of the things he did as attorney general. As a candidate, critics charge, Lungren helped contribute to the worst defeat (58% to 38%) of a Republican nominee for governor since William F. Knowland lost to Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown by one million votes in 1958. because Lungren refused to take any pledge against new or higher taxes; and downplayed his strong pro-life stance, insisting instead that abortion was an issue a governor could do little about; and as congressman had supported asset forfeiture legislation that is a terror to many conservatives; and as attorney general had sued tobacco companies and accepted a settlement, in contrast to other GOP attorneys general such as Alabama’s Bill Pryor who denounced the proposed suit as a sham to acquire more state revenue. As a gubernatorial candidate Lungren also refused to campaign on the anti-illegal immigration theme that had rocketed Republican Gov. (1990-98) Pete Wilson to a landslide re-election only four years before Lungren’s crushing defeat.

"I litigated for Proposition 187 when it was being challenged," argued Lungren, adding that it has "become difficult" to discuss the issue of illegal immigration in more recent years. He also insisted that he had not retreated from his pro-life position in making the case that abortion was an issue a governor could do little about. But "Gray Davis wanted to make the whole campaign one on abortion and I wanted to show how he would perform on other issues that a governor could do more about such as spending, energy, infrastructure, and crime, which is now rising in California. And I’ve been proven right by his performance on these issues!"

Lungren said he did not regret any of the positions he had taken when in Congress or the AG’s office or the way his ’98 campaign was run, concluding that he lost because " California was the way it was and it was a difficult electorate." Regarding criticism of him and commitments to Oller by party officials and office-holders, he said, "I’m not into inside baseball. I’ve been back to the district and all I get from regular people is encouragement." As to why he wants to return to Congress after a 15-year hiatus, Lungren cited his credentials on the House Judiciary Committee as a respected expert on crime and immigration as important in the post 9-11 period. Of his present frame of mind about running, the 56-year-old Lungren said, "I haven’t decided."