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California governor won't call special election to fill Rep. Duncan Hunter's seat

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 1/8/2020 By Charles T. Clark, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Duncan D. Hunter wearing a suit and tie: Outside Federal Court in downtown San Diego, Calif. Congressman Duncan Hunter along with his attorney, Paul Pfingst spoke with news reporters briefly about his guilty plea in Federal Court on Dec. 3, 2019 before leaving. © Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS Outside Federal Court in downtown San Diego, Calif. Congressman Duncan Hunter along with his attorney, Paul Pfingst spoke with news reporters briefly about his guilty plea in Federal Court on Dec. 3, 2019 before leaving.

SAN DIEGO — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Wednesday a special election will not be called to fill the congressional seat that will be vacated when Rep. Duncan Hunter resigns from office Monday.

“The Governor’s Office received Rep. Hunter’s resignation letter. Based on the timing of the resignation, a special election will not be called,” Newsom spokeswoman Vicky Waters said by email.

The 50th Congressional District — which includes much of East County as well as the North County communities of Fallbrook, San Marcos, Valley Center and Escondido, and a small portion of Riverside County — will now be without a representative in Congress until January of next year.

Hunter, a Republican who was elected to office in 2008, was indicted in August of 2018 on 60 federal counts based on accusations that he and Margaret Hunter, his wife and former campaign manager, stole $250,000 of campaign funds, using it for family vacations, groceries, his extramarital affairs and other non-campaign uses, including airfare for a pet rabbit.

The congressman, 43, reached a deal and pleaded guilty on Dec. 3 to a single count of conspiracy to convert campaign funds to personal use, a felony for which he could be sentenced up to five years in prison. On Tuesday of this week, he set the date for stepping down.

Because Hunter did not resign until after the filing deadline, which was in early December, Newsom, a Democrat, was given the option of legally leaving the seat vacant until after the November general election.

Because Hunter resigned so late and close to the March primary, it also made it increasingly difficult for a special election to be conducted or for the special election to be consolidated with the primary. It was not immediately clear whether that was part of what affected Newsom’s decision.

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office has been finalizing proofs of the final March ballot this week, and federal law dictates that overseas military ballots go out next week.

Because of the timing of the resignation, there also would have been challenges for the secretary of state and the registrar’s office to conduct a special election separate from the primary.

Under state law there is a relatively short window in which a special election could have been conducted. In this case the final special election would have to have been held in late May or early June, but a primary of sorts would have also had to have occurred before that as well — likely on one of the Tuesdays in March after the primary.

In the case of either a consolidated election or a special election, voters would end up receiving mail ballots for both the primary and special election around the same time, which could confuse voters.

Republican Carl DeMaio and Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, two of the top contenders vying to replace Hunter, have wanted a special election to be called and have been criticizing Hunter’s reluctance to immediately resign for more than a month.

“It’s outrageous and unconscionable that Gavin Newsom is leaving the 50th Congressional District without a Member of Congress — their voice in Washington — for a full year,” said DeMaio in a statement. “If this were a safe Democrat seat, you know damn well that the Governor would have wanted it filled as soon as possible — but because this is a Republican seat, he couldn’t care less about the voters in our district. By playing politics, Gavin Newsom is denying the fundamental right for these residents to have the voice they deserve in Congress.”

Campa-Najjar, meanwhile, put the blame squarely on Hunter for the lack of a special election.

“If Hunter and the party establishment weren’t worried I’d win a March 3 special election, he wouldn’t have waited until mid January to resign,” Campa-Najjar tweeted in response to DeMaio. “This seat doesn’t belong to the Republican or Dem Party — it belongs to the people of (California 50). This November we’re taking it back.”

Voter registration in the 50th Congressional District strongly favors Republicans. There are 141,853 registered Republicans, compared with 101,927 registered Democrats and 91,946 voters who registered listing no party preference.

The week he pleaded guilty, Hunter issued a statement in the form of a staged interview with television station KUSI. He said at the time: “I’m confident that the transition will be a good one. My office is going to remain open. I’ve got a great staff. We’re going handle people’s cases and pass it off to whoever takes this seat next. And we’ll make sure that’s a seamless transition.”

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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