Stateline Story

Some Lawmakers Take Unusual Path to Power

  • November 05, 2004
  • By Eric Kelderman and Kathleen Hunter

There was only one thing missing election night when Tom Umberg's staff celebrated his decisive win in California's 69th State Assembly District -- and that was Tom Umberg. He was thousands of miles away on active military duty in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mrs. Tom Umberg took his place. She delivered her husband's acceptance speech standing beside a life-size, full-color cutout of him -- complete with a suit jacket casually slung over his shoulder. It is the same cutout Robin Umberg used for campaign appearances after the flesh-and-blood candidate, a U.S. Army reservist, was called to active duty in August.

Of the 5,804 state legislators elected in 44 states on Nov. 2, a few such as Umberg stand out from the crowd. In 2004, voters also elected the first Vietnamese-American legislator, a wife running to replace her term-limited husband, a daughter running to serve alongside her father and a Connecticut candidate who was both elected and rejected for the same office.

Umberg, an Orange County Democrat lawyer who is doing his military duty by helping the Pentagon handle terrorism cases, trounced his opponent -- Republican Otto Bade -- by a margin of more than 2-1. A former deputy drug czar for President Clinton, he likely will be sworn in when he returns home in December.

"Maybe we should send him away for the next election," joked campaign spokesman George Urch.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that at least two state legislators, Rep. Rick Noriega of Texas and Ohio Sen. Steve Stivers, were re-elected while on active duty in the National Guard or reserves.

California voters also elected the nation's first Vietnamese-American state legislator Van Tran, a Republican from Little Saigon in conservative Orange County, Calif., who was 10 when his family fled Saigon, Vietnam. Before his state Assembly race, Tran served as a Garden Grove, Calif., City Councilman.

But Ferial Masry, born in Mecca, Saudia Arabia, lost her bid to become the first Saudi-born state legislator in the nation after winning a surprise write-in primary campaign.

Masry, who gained national and international attention during her campaign, lost the general election by a wide margin to Audra Strickland, the wife of the Assembly member whom both were vying to replace. Strickland's husband, Tony, was forced to step down by term limits and will head the state's chapter of the anti-tax group, the Club for Growth.

"We have nothing but good to say about [Masry] as a candidate," said Strickland's campaign manager Joel Angeles. Masry's views just did not reflect the District where she was running, he said.

Strickland is no newcomer to politics and worked for the Republican Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle in 1996, two years before she was married. Although Strickland is well-known in Sacramento, she is realistic about her prospects as a freshman lawmaker. Unlike her husband, a veteran lawmaker, "[Audra] understands she will get a freshman member's office," Angeles said.

Family ties also were at work in Dana Seum Stephenson's race for the Kentucky Senate. She will serve in the same chamber as her father, state Sen. Dan Seum (R), who represents a Louisville, Ky., district.

Having a politically well-known family member did not help Harold Fletcher Jr., who also was running for the Kentucky Senate and is the older brother of Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R).

Fletcher lost by a 2-to-1 margin to former Gov. Julian Carroll (D), 73, who was governor from 1974 to 1979 after serving 10 years in the state House and a term as lieutenant governor but who has been out of the state capital for 25 years.

"Unfortunately, that [race] was kind of a mandate on the current leadership," said Bryce Carpenter, a spokesman for the state Republican Party.

One of the country's more unusual election outcomes was in Woodstock, Conn., where two competing candidates both won and lost their race on the same night.

Voters in Connecticut's 50th District chose Reece Painter to serve out the term until Jan. 5, 2005 -- of a state representative who had resigned after a guilty plea in a sexual abuse case. Painter won the election for a 35-day term by just 13 votes over candidate Mike Alberts.

But the same voters chose Alberts, by 40 votes, to fill the House seat for the full two-year term beginning in January, explained his wife Judy, the Woodstock city clerk.

There were two columns on the ballot, and voters may have been confused, Alberts' wife said. "Both candidates neglected to get the information out there that they would be on the ballot twice."

David Balmer, a Republican, was elected to his first term in the Colorado House of Representatives, 16 years after he was elected to his first term across the country in the North Carolina Statehouse. Balmer served three terms in North Carolina before he lost a congressional bid following revelations that he had embellished his resume.

Balmer won an easy victory with 55 percent of the vote, said Colorado GOP spokesman Bill Ray. Balmer had hidden nothing about his past, and voters mostly overlooked it, Ray said.

"The way that District performs, he could've done a little better," Ray said.

Other political newcomers with interesting backgrounds did not fare so well on Election Day. Terry Anderson, a journalist held hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s, lost his bid as a Democrat for the Ohio Senate.

And two students running for statehouses learned that politics can be a school of hard knocks. Jay Maus, a University of Kansas student, lost his race for the Kansas House of Representatives. George Washington University student James Jake Gilbreath, a Texas Democrat, also lost his campaign, but took some comfort in the 27 percent of votes he got, and vowed to continue his political career.

"It was a tough district, to say the least," Gilbreath said. "But I polled higher than the [Democratic] congressional candidate in my district and [presidential candidate] John Kerry."