Competition between Lorena Gonzales and Steve Castaneda is getting intense as the race for a special election nears.
It's a given that another Democrat will represent 80th Assembly District residents in Sacramento, starting late next month.
The mystery is how much competition the supposed underdog will give the favorite in the special election race.
"I think that we have a good opportunity to win,” said Steve Castaneda, who has served two, four-year terms, each as a city councilman and planning commissioner in Chula Vista-- the population hub of the South County-centric district.
“I think what voters are telling us at the door and on the phone is that there's a real choice here," Castaneda added during an interview Thursday, following his third campaign forum appearance with rival Lorena Gonzalez, the region’s top labor leader.
"It's all going to be who turns out to vote because this is going to be a very small electorate and it's unfortunate. But that's just the way things are in these special elections," Castaneda said.
Most of the campaign money, in the quarter-million dollar-plus range, is being spent on behalf of Gonzalez– the oddsmakers’ favorite.
She professes not to be taking her advantage in funding and major endorsements for granted.
"Obviously a lot of polls have come out, and I think I'm ahead in all of them,” Gonzalez said in the aftermath of Thursday’s forum, sponsored by Southwestern College.
“But what this is about is voters who are excited, who are ready to go, ready to back up a legislator who wants to make sure that the 80th Assembly District doesn't mean we're last," Gonzalez said.
The office became vacant last month after Democrat Ben Hueso was elected to fill the vacancy in the 40th State Senate District. Democrat Juan Vargas left that post to fill San Diego Mayor Bob Filner's former 51st District Congressional seat.
No Republican or Independent entered the race.
But while the 80th is a stronghold for the Democrats, their voter registration total is exceeded by that of Republicans and Independents combined.
Castaneda points out that Gonzalez has only lived in the 80th district for a year.
She points out that he's late to the party-- the Democratic Party, that is.
"What Mr. Castaneda won't tell you is, he was a registered Republican four years ago,” Gonzalez observed during the candidates’ forum. “So he'll go to Republicans and tell them that. And now he's a Democrat, and he'll tell them that. But the truth is, I have been very clear about my values since the time I signed up to vote."
Later, in a his post-forum remarks, Castaneda offered this response: “"I've been a Democrat for a number of years. Anybody that's followed how I've voted understands I'm a fiscal conservative. I always have been. And like I've said before, labels really aren't anything…the (Republican) party left me.”
As for their relative strengths in seeking the office?
"Other than the rhetoric, look at our track records,” Castaneda suggested. “Look at what we've done in terms of fixing government and being accountable. Not just an advocate or organizer, but somebody that's been up there on the dais and cast votes and had to make policy decisions."
Replied Gonzalez: "Well, I think counting votes is the easy part. Obviously the tough part is organizing a community in order to enact change. And once you're in Sacramento, it's getting those other legislators to decide that what we want here in the South Bay is what they should want as well.”
Political observers note that historically, voter registration and turnout in the 80th have been low.
With just two Democrats in the race, how could the ballots break?
"The one that is closer to the middle, I think, is the one that's going to get the Republican and the independent-- or unaffiliated– vote,” said Southwestern College political science professor Phil Saenz, who moderated the forum.
“While the Democrats do have a stronghold here, there's more voters who are not registered Democrat. So it all depends on the voter turnout," Saenz said.
Mail ballots in the race began circulating this week, and the polls open May 21st.
Two would-be candidates-- neither with 'household names'-- are trying to qualify for write-in status.