Lee Davis
Lee Davis (Steven Georges)

LONG BEACH -- Perhaps it should come as no surprise that controversial Congresswoman Laura Richardson is one of the only incumbents from the region to face challengers in the June 8 statewide primary election.

The Long Beach Democrat has received an onslaught of bad press over the last two years, yet even reports about her home foreclosure and financial problems didn't hinder her in getting re-elected in 2008. Since that election, Richardson has been under investigation by a House ethics panel because of the circumstances surrounding her home foreclosure, which later was reversed by the lender.

Peter Mathews.
Peter Mathews. (Diandra Jay)

Most recently, criticism was leveled at Richardson's decision this year to take her 19 staff members on an air tour of the area she represents, the 37th Congressional District, in two Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopters at a cost of over $20,000 to taxpayers.

It is these controversies, among other things, upon which three challengers are hanging their hopes to unseat the incumbent.

Two have tried before and failed -- college professor Peter Mathews, who is in his third attempt, and writer Lee Davis, who is in her second run for the office.

A third, new challenger has entered the scene this year, attorney Terrance Ponchak.


Advertisement

All three seem to be hoping to ride a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment that they hope extends to Richardson. The 37th District includes Long Beach, Compton, Carson, Watts, Willowbrook and Signal Hill.

"The country has changed," Mathews said. "The polls are showing more than ever that voters want to throw the bums out, so to speak."

Davis said that Richardson has proven a lack of fiscal responsibility, although Davis too had a home that went into foreclosure.

Terry Ponchak
Terry Ponchak

"I think the icing on the cake was the helicopter ride," Davis said. "Not only is she a person who doesn't handle her own finances, she also doesn't handle the people's money well."

Ponchak said he considers himself a "mainstream, angry Democrat" who wants to practice "common-sense fiscal accountability," something he too said Richardson hasn't used.

"I see 'yes'es in every bill," Ponchak said. "I don't see enough scrutiny."

Ponchak and Mathews both like to point out that they aren't beholden to special interest groups, but what that often translates into is relatively limited campaign funding. Neither does Davis have much of a campaign war chest.

In politics, especially to defeat an incumbent member of Congress, money is usually a necessity.

Laura Richardson
Laura Richardson (Jeff Gritchen)

Having political capital in the form of endorsements and experience often goes a long way as well. Yet, none of Richardson's challengers has ever held an elected office, nor do they have many powerful supporters.

Richardson, on the other hand, spent six years on the Long Beach City Council before winning a state Assembly seat in 2006 and getting elected to Congress in 2007. She replaced Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died while in office.

Like many races in California's gerrymandered legislative and Congressional districts, the contest for the heavily Democratic 37th District is likely to be decided in next month's primary, rather than in the November general election.

That makes the June 8 election all that much more important for voters, and the stakes that much higher for the challengers -- defeating Richardson could mean an easy road to Washington, D.C., where the winner has the potential to enjoy a lifetime position.

Of course, one obvious question to put to all of the challengers is, why start with Congress? Why not run for state Assembly, council or another elected post?

The answer among all of them has been that Congress is where they see the need. Clearly, Davis and Mathews -- especially Mathews, who has run for other Congressional positions before as well -- have their sights set only on Congress.

The newcomer, Ponchak, said that he feels local elected officials are doing all right.

"We have a lot of capable people running city government, including the mayor," Ponchak said.

He said he just wanted to see some common sense in Congress.

"I have been waiting for candidates that have never appeared," Ponchak said.

Ponchack, 61, grew up in Wrigley, lives in Bixby Knolls and is a general practice attorney handling a range of cases, from family law to consumer issues.

He said he prefers a "pay-as-you-go" method in government and that he would have voted against the federal economic stimulus bill "just on principle" because of the lack of transparency and the short time that the public was given to know what exactly the law entailed.

Ponchak had similar complaints about the health care reform bill, but said it was on the right track. He said he supports reform of health care and health insurance, but he sees them as two separate issues.

Creating jobs is also important to Ponchack, who said he wants to see incentives for employers to hire workers and to reduce some taxes, including the estate tax.

The candidate's other priorities are protecting Social Security, MediCare and national defense. Ponchak said he supports pulling out of Iraq in 2011 but that he supports actions being taken in Afghanistan.

For Davis, 50, her priorities are the economy, creating jobs, providing housing and making it more difficult for banks to foreclose on homes.

She too didn't support the federal stimulus plan, which she said should also have helped small businesses, not just big corporations.

"If you're going to bail out one, you should also have funds for the other," Davis said.

Davis said she supports the healthcare reform package and wants to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mathews, 58, also had mixed feelings about the federal stimulus plan. He said it has been poorly managed, didn't require enough of the companies that received the money and didn't help small businesses.

He said he supports the healthcare reform bill but wants to see it expanded to give MediCare to all Americans.

"I probably would have voted for this but immediately I would have put an amendment to put it toward a more efficient, universal payment system," he said.

Mathews' other plans if elected are to close corporate tax loopholes, lower corporate taxes and invest in green technologies.

He has criticized Richardson's support of war funding, saying that he would spend money now in Iraq only to pull troops out. Mathews would eventually like to pull out "responsibly and safely" from Afghanistan, he said.

While Richardson did vote for $50 billion in war funding in 2007, she voted against a $165 billion war funding bill in 2008.

She voted for the healthcare reform package, although she voted against a measure prohibiting federal health care funds from being used for abortions. Richardson voted in favor of the economic stimulus bill.

paul.eakins@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1278