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Demo Dogfight

Democratic hopefuls slug it out for a shot at Rep. Frank Riggs

By Bruce Robinson

At least it's not hard to tell them apart. The five candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District are an odd mix of newcomers and outsiders, and represent viewpoints from the full breadth of the mainstream political spectrum. Appropriately for the unpredictable North Coast district, the three most prominent candidates are all women, though two of them are being harshly branded as opportunistic carpetbaggers.

At 27, Michela Alioto is by far the youngest candidate. She is the granddaughter of former San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto--who recently popped up in local politics himself after it was revealed that he is representing opponents of the controversial Lafferty Ranch swap in Petaluma--and shares that famous surname with her aunt, Angela, who is herself a candidate in the 6th District Assembly race. Along with her family associations, Michela Alioto wields considerable fiscal resources, having won a $1.5 million legal settlement from the 1991 skiing accident that left her wheelchair-bound. Alioto has never held public office, though she previously worked in the Clinton presidential campaign and was a member of Vice President Al Gore's staff before establishing residency in St. Helena to enter this race.

Also moving north recently was former San Francisco Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, an attorney who has lost in previous runs for congresswoman and district attorney elsewhere. She is now officially a Healdsburg resident. She offers an independent smorgasbord of views, including support for a national balanced budget amendment and a call for substantial changes in the GATT and NAFTA trade agreements.

Monica Marvin is also a St. Helena resident, but she is well established in local political circles as an active backer of state Sen. Mike Thompson, Assembywoman Valerie Brown, ex-Rep. Dan Hamburg, and others. Marvin was recruited for the race by Thompson (who decided to not take the plunge himself, despite strong encouragement from party leaders) and won the official Democratic Party endorsement earlier in the year.

That endorsement is a major sore point with Dennis Chunning, a Napa-based political activist who has worked for Jerry Brown's We the People organization for the past four years. Chunning sued the party to block Marvin's endorsement, charging he was not given a chance to fairly compete for it, since he was not invited to the meeting at which the endorsement was made, even though he was a declared candidate at the time. Chunning's positions are generally the most liberal of the five candidates.

The softest voice in the pack belongs to Bill Burton, a Humboldt County engineer and political neophyte whose positions tilt to the conservative wing of the party. He opposes an increase in the minimum wage and may back some form of a flat tax, two stances at odds with all four of his rivals.

While these five hopefuls slug it out, Republican incumbent Frank Riggs with his $130,000 campaign war chest is waiting in the wings. This has been the single most volatile congressional district in the nation recently, electing a new representative in each of the past four elections, and the odds of yet another change in November depend heavily on the primary's outcome.

"The difficulty of that race for Frank Riggs depends on who becomes the Democratic candidate, and whether or not it's one of the carpetbaggers from San Francisco," forecasts Bev Hansen, a former Republican Assembly member from the Sonoma Valley. She observes that North Coast voters "don't like outsiders, especially San Francisco outsiders. They come in and tell you about the timber industry and the fishing industry and all the issues that are near and dear along the coastline."

But in a dead heat between Riggs and Marvin, Hansen predicts, "Monica can win it."

Dan Hamburg, who lost the seat to Riggs two years ago, is less sanguine. The key question for Marvin, he says, is whether or not "she can master the issues in time." He notes that Marvin's personal political views have yet to be "tested in the cauldron of an election," especially against such an aggressive, attacking opponent as Riggs.

Hamburg points out, however, that "Monica has the personal charm and social graces to be an effective candidate. I think she is the only viable candidate, having roots in Napa." The Napa-Solano portion of the huge district now holds 45 percent of the voters.

But competitive campaign finances cloud the picture. "Alioto seems to have frozen the union money," Hamburg reports, which is making Marvin's fundraising efforts more difficult. And while Silver has past political supporters to call on, her efforts got off to a troubled start when she had to jettison her first campaign manager, whose turbulent personal life threatened to overshadow the campaign.

The Democratic Party nationally has made the North Coast district its second highest priority in the fall, which should help boost whoever survives the primary.

But Riggs, a loyalist in the Gingrich "revolution," may face unexpected difficulties from the national political stage. "Frank's problem," says Hamburg, " is not so much running this race as that his party is disintegrating behind him."

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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