He’s back in the saddle

Dan Lungren gives wife Bobbi a kiss at campaign headquarters in Folsom on election night. After a heated primary race against fellow Republicans Rico Oller and Mary Ose, the former state attorney general won 62 percent of the vote against Democrat Gabe Castillo to nab Doug Ose’s 3rd District seat.

Sacramento Bee/Renee C. Byer

After a crushing defeat in the 1998 gubernatorial race, Dan Lungren is excited about returning to Congress after his big win in the 3rd District
By David Whitney — Bee Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – For former California Attorney General Dan Lungren, his wide margin of victory in Tuesday’s 3rd Congressional District battle to succeed retiring Rep. Doug Ose was a resurrection of the politically dead.

“I could not go through the experience last night without reflecting on the experience of six years ago,” Lungren said a day after defeating Democratic novice Gabe Castillo to decisively capture Ose’s seat.

Six years ago, after a humiliating trouncing by Democrat Gray Davis in the 1998 gubernatorial contest in which Lungren garnered barely 38 percent of the vote, the popular wisdom was that Lungren’s political career had come to a crushing finish.

But when Ose announced last year that he would not seek a fourth term in a Republican district that easily would have given him one, Lungren seized a rare opportunity. He moved from Roseville, where he had kept a home since his days as attorney general, to Gold River and entered the primary race.

Battered from the right by state Sen. Rico Oller, who tried to cast Lungren as a Republican moderate, and from the center by Doug Ose’s sister, Mary Ose, Lungren was outspent and outorganized, but managed to squeak to victory in March.

Then, in the general election, Castillo attacked Lungren as too conservative, focusing on his opposition to abortion. While there was little doubt that Lungren would win in the Republican-dominated district, campaign aides worried that he would not surpass the magic 60 percent margin that could discourage challengers two years down the road. He won with 62 percent.

So at 58, Lungren is headed back to Congress a reinvigorated, if bruised, man.

For 10 years, Lungren represented the Long Beach area in Congress, working with such conservative heroes of the day as Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich. Then, in 1989, Gov. George Deukmejian nominated him to be state treasurer.

Lungren packed up his family and moved to Sacramento. But state Senate Democrats seized on what they described as his ultraconservative record and blocked his confirmation. He then ran for attorney general, winning in 1990 and serving through a second term before his ill-fated run for governor.

Lungren stayed in Sacramento trying various jobs, including a stint as a talk show host on a Catholic radio station, before joining former Congressmen Birch Bayh and James Rogan at the Venable law firm in Washington, D.C.

Because he had served 10 years in the House, Lungren will arrive with seniority that casts him ahead of other freshmen and with a keen sense of what needs to be done.

Lungren, as he pulls out of the Venable law firm, already has made some key staff decisions two months before he is sworn in and given a Capitol Hill office and payroll.

Lungren has tapped Victor Arnold-Vik, his longtime aide and former chief of staff when he represented Long Beach between 1978 and 1988, to return to Capitol Hill to again head his office.

The Netherlands-born Arnold-Vik, 47, will give up his job at the General Services Administration, where he had worked on improving efficiency in the sale of government property.

Lungren also has recruited Kirk Uhler, a former pro-development Placer County supervisor, to oversee his district operations. Uhler, now the chief operating officer for the Electric and Gas Industries Association, saw his own political career end with an unsuccessful race against Oller for the state Assembly in 1996.

Uhler said that because of his campaign experience with Oller, the Lungren campaign decided not to accept his services before the March primary. But since that election he has been working with Lungren toward the eventual transition to Ose’s seat.

“Dan is the first elected official I ever considered working for,” said Uhler, 37.

Ose, who considered running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer, surprised state Republicans and his congressional district last year when he announced that he was going to retire from public office in keeping with his promise not to hold the seat for more than three terms when he was elected in 1998.

Ose’s politics are more moderate than Lungren’s. Ose, for example, is pro-choice on abortion while Lungren, in his first stint in the U.S. House, backed a constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion even in the case of rape and incest.

Their interests also are different. Ose has served on the House Agriculture, Government Reform and Financial Services committees. Lungren hopes to be assigned to the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees and maybe Financial Services when assignments are handed out in January.

The more immediate issue is a smooth transition, and to that end Lungren and Ose already have been meeting to go over agendas and unfinished business Lungren will inherit, such as continuing flood control work.

“Dan has been very attentive,” Ose said. “He is young, he’s got lots of energy and lots of experience in politics. Lungren … has been very, very interested in making sure this transition goes smoothly.”

Lungren said Ose has given him his recommendations on various matters. “There has been no pressure on me to follow those recommendations if I don’t agree,” Lungren said. “I couldn’t ask for anyone more hospitable, more gracious in trying to make this transition work.”

Newly elected House members are to arrive in Washington mid-November for orientation, but Lungren will not be among them. He and his wife, Bobbi, are on a two-week vacation to rest from the campaign.

But Lungren said he is ecstatic at the prospect of returning to Congress, humbled by the experiences he’s been through and grateful for the unique opportunity that Ose’s retirement gave him to return to the life of an elected politician.

“If I write my autobiography, it is going to be called ‘Life is not an Undefeated Season,’ ” Lungren said. “When you lose, you have to understand that. When you win, you have to understand that.”

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* The Bee’s David Whitney can be reached at (202) 383-0004 or dwhitney@mcclatchydc.com.