This week, Rep. Gary Condit took the first formal steps toward seeking re-election in 2002, hoping that the new political realities of the war against terrorism might work to his benefit, and emboldened, perhaps, by a notion that he has little to lose.
On Monday, the California Democrat submitted 4,800 signatures — about 1,800 more than is required — to the county election clerks' offices in his 18th Congressional District.
Some Democrats in California worry that the scandal-tainted Condit name could not only cost the party the seat, but damage the ticket in that area of the state. Condit's son Chad is running for an open state Senate seat that overlaps with his father's congressional district, causing Democrats to fret that the Condits could drag down other candidates if they win their respective nominations.
Now that Condit has turned in the necessary signatures, he needs only to file declaration of candidacy papers by Friday, Dec. 7. If he decides to back out of the race after Dec. 7, a court petition would be required to remove his name from the March 5 primary ballot.
Although most Democratic Party operatives interviewed expect Condit to run, some privately say they wouldn't be surprised to see him withdraw — but none of them claim to know what the reclusive Congressman really is thinking.
Condit's office did not return calls seeking comment.
Democrats Line Up
If Condit doesn't drop out of the race before the primary, he is expected to be challenged for the Democratic nomination by several candidates, most prominently state Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza. Cardoza is a former Condit protégé who has represented much of the district and, as chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee, has held a leadership position in this Democrat-dominated state.
Republicans also are looking at a contested primary, with their strongest potential nominee being state Sen. Dick Monteith.
Condit apparently struggled to gather the necessary signatures (his extra 1,800 to the contrary), and Democratic political opponents are questioning the validity of some of them, claiming they were improperly solicited by people who were not registered voters in the district, but were hired by the Condit campaign due to a lack of volunteers. Some of the signatures also are alleged to be from voters outside the district.
The signatures will be examined by the Registrars of Voters in the five counties that make up the 18th Congressional District. Any problem with the signatures must be made known by Nov. 30.
These petitions are the clearest sign yet that Condit is considering running, if not likely to run for re-election despite his admitted affair with Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old former intern who has been missing since May 1.
The Sept. 11 terrorist strikes instantly eclipsed what had been nearly non-stop media coverage of Condit and Levy. Apart from the grand jury subpoena he received two weeks ago for documents related to the case, nary a peep had been heard by or about Condit until his filing on Monday. A few media outlets even interviewed Levy's forlorn parents about "how the world has changed" since Sept. 11.
At this point, the conventional wisdom is that Condit's personal problems are insurmountable and that his congressional career will end in 2002 — possibly as early as Dec. 7, or by the March 5 primary, and if not then, probably in the November general election. Which prompts the question of why he would run at all.
But Condit is a lifelong politician with no other profession and, unlike some of his colleagues, he lacks personal financial resources. A loner in the House, he arguably lacks the kind of chummy relationships that other former members use to launch lucrative lobbying careers, and his ties to Levy could complicate such an effort, anyway.
Still, Condit may well feel he has a chance to win, by emphasizing his service on the House Intelligence Committee and the subcommittee on Homeland Security during this time of war, on the House Agriculture Committee for his ag-dependent district, and to his constituents generally for the last 12 years. After all, as Condit consultant Richie Ross noted earlier in the year, constituents here are on a first-name basis with their congressman, although Levy's disappearance may have destroyed that intimacy for many.
And while no single smart political observer interviewed for this article would say Condit stands a chance of winning re-election, stranger things have happened.
Remaining Roadblocks Three obstacles stand in his way, however, apart from the gaping question of Levy's disappearance. First, the decennial redistricting process has given Condit a district which is about one-third new. Registration in the redrawn district is 51.8 percent Democrat, to 35 percent Republican, compared to the previous ratio of 46.1 percent Democrat to 39.2 percent GOP. The new constituents, most of whom live in the city of Stockton, are working-class minorities.
Second, he faces a serious primary challenge from a more liberal Democrat, Cardoza, who would have to be favored to win in a two-way Democratic primary for which only loyal, liberal Democrats typically turn out to vote.
Last summer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein publicized her displeasure with Condit, and California state party chairman Art Torres is publicly backing Cardoza. And, party leaders in the counties that make up the 18th Congressional District wrote a letter to Condit in early October notifying him that they will not support his re-election bid. The Merced County leadership wrote, "Your continued silence [on Levy] has been deafening to those of us who have continued to defend and support you. Based on your continued behavior and conduct, we appeal to you to do the right thing for the people who have been faithful to you for some 30 years and to step down at the end of your present term in Congress."
Two more Democrats, both of whom live outside the district, also are running: assistant gas station manager Joseph Martin of San Jose, and music producer Elvis Pringle of Los Angeles. Neither is expected to gain much support.
And third, if Condit makes it to the general election, he'll likely face a strong Republican challenger who, like Cardoza, has gotten elected in the area before.
Republicans would prefer to face Condit, of course, because of his personal problems, but argue that Cardoza can be beaten because he is a more liberal Democrat and the 18th district, even after the re-map, remains culturally conservative. GOP sources also suggest that Cardoza could be hurt by his ties to Condit (even though the two Democrats have fallen out since Cardoza made it known that he would be seeking Condit's seat).
Republicans also have a preferred candidate in Monteith, but must sit back and wait for the conclusion of Monteith's primary fight against Bill Conrad, a repeat candidate.
Somewhat likewise, while it's safe to say that the state and national Democratic parties would prefer to have Cardoza as their nominee, some Democrats will feel a need to withhold their support until after the primary.
Private polling has suggested that Condit would lose by a good margin both to Cardoza in a primary and to Monteith in a general election (poll conducted by J. Moore Methods of Sacramento, from the Modesto Bee, Oct. 6).
Chad Condit will be running for the state's 12th Senate District, the seat that was designated for Cardoza before the scandal erupted and Cardoza decided to aim higher. In that Democratic primary, he will be running against another former Condit ally and old family associate, Rusty Areias. Last summer, Chad Condit quit his job as a consultant to Gov. Gray Davis after Davis spoke out against his father.