Mary Bono Wins House Seat
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 1998; Page A04
PALM SPRINGS, Calif., April 7Mary Bono won a decisive victory over actor Ralph Waite today in her bid to occupy the congressional seat of her late husband, singer Sonny Bono, in an intensely personal special election in this desert resort favored by the stars.
With 227 of 290 precincts reporting, Bono had won more than 65 percent of the vote, compared with 28 percent for Waite.
Bono, 36, a conservative Republican whose husband died in a skiing accident at Lake Tahoe three months ago, told an exuberant victory party that she is "looking forward to returning a voice to Washington, D.C. I know Sonny would be extremely proud of the campaign that we have run."
"It is because I spent 14 years with Sonny Bono that I can stand here before you tonight as a congresswoman," she said. "I'm so happy to carry on the legacy."
Another new female member of the House from California there will now be 13 women in the 52-member delegation is state Sen. Barbara Lee (D), who today won the race to succeed her former boss, Oakland and Berkeley area Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D). He resigned after 27 years in the House. Lee had about two-thirds of the vote in early returns.
In the Bono race, Waite, a 69-year-old Democrat, was hampered in his campaign because of a contractual commitment that forced him to spend five days a week onstage in a New Jersey playhouse in the role of Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman." Throughout his campaign, Waite said that he expected his vote to fall far short of Bono's but that his goal was to hold her to under 50 percent and force her into a runoff. Failing that, he said, he will try again in November, when the House seat will again be up for a full term.
There were no other serious contenders in the race, in what traditionally has been considered a safe Republican district. In all, there were four Republicans and two Democrats in the sprawling 44th District's open primary.
Bono's campaign manager, Brian Nestande, said absentee, or mail-in, ballots played a key role in a district heavy with retirees where normally 40 percent of the vote is by mail. Nestande, who was Sonny Bono's congressional chief of staff, said that campaign workers telephoned every voter who requested a mail-in ballot and that a prominent local Democrat, former Disabled American Veterans president Seymour Kaplan, was enlisted to contact prospective Democratic absentee voters to urge them to vote for Bono.
Bono spent more than $400,000 in her campaign, twice as much as Waite. Both sides had said that they had exhausted their funds and would have had to begin a new fund-raising effort had there been a need for a runoff.
Bono is the second widow to win her husband's House seat in California this year. On March 10, Democrat Lois Capps won a special election in Santa Barbara to succeed her husband, Walter, who died last fall. Since 1916, the first year that a woman was elected to the House of Representatives, 37 of the 39 widows who have sought their late husbands' House seats have been elected, according to the Republican National Committee.
Sensing an opportunity to deny the Democrats a chance at a seat that the GOP considers vital in its effort to retain a House majority, the national party jumped into Bono's campaign with organizing assistance and appearances by big-name Republicans such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former presidential contenders Dan Quayle and Jack Kemp, and former president Gerald R. Ford.
Waite, like Bono, has never held elective office. But in 1990 he came within 5 percentage points of defeating Rep. Al McCandless (R) in the newly reapportioned district. During this campaign, he said the Republicans' strategy was to "create an atmosphere, based on public sympathy for Mary Bono, that there is no race here."
In an interview, he complained that the sympathy strategy "trivializes" the political process.
Waite noted that Bono's last job, independent of Sonny Bono before she met him on her college graduation night 14 years ago, was as a waitress.
"To be very blunt, if she weren't Sonny's widow, I don't think there's any way she'd be taken very seriously as a candidate," said Waite, who is best known for his role as Pa in the long-running television series "The Waltons."
Bono countered by saying that while she has no experience in elective office, she played a behind-the-scenes role in her late husband's business enterprises and helped organize his winning campaign for Palm Springs mayor in 1988 and his successful bid for a House seat in 1994.
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