Rep. Condit files for re-election, setting up rugged race with former protege

Saturday, December 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MODESTO, Calif. (AP) _ Pushing aside a controversy that has dogged him since May, Rep. Gary Condit filed for re-election at the deadline and entered what is expected to be the toughest race of his congressional career.

A year ago, the congressman of ``Condit Country'' seemed unbeatable.

But then this spring, Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old federal intern from his district, disappeared. And the married congressman _ while not considered a suspect _ later admitted having a relationship with her.

Condit had kept his re-election plans silent until Friday, when he appeared at the Stanislaus County courthouse with his campaign papers and 1,500 voter signatures to add to the 1,939 already declared valid. A candidate must have 3,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot or pay a filing fee.

``It was a very difficult decision for me,'' Condit said, looking weary but flashing his trademark smile. ``It took some time to think about and I've represented the valley for a long time and I've done a good job for the people of the valley.''

His re-election bid sends him headlong into a Democratic primary campaign against his former protege Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza. Cardoza said he had expected Condit to file.

``He probably sees this as one way he can redeem himself some way,'' Cardoza said.

California Republican Party spokesman Rob Stutzman said the district is in for ``a rather brutal primary,'' but he admitted it is so Democratic it would take a destructive campaign for the Republicans to win. Redistricting after the 2000 census made the agriculture-rich district even more heavily Democratic. But it also drew in a new mix of voters.

Some prominent Democrats, including California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, are already backing Cardoza. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Friday it will remain neutral in the primary.

``I think it's a good time for him to back out,'' said Susan Davis, a Democrat from Turlock who said she voted for Condit before but won't this time.

Condit should have been more candid about Levy, said Republican Modesto Councilman Armour Smith, a former supporter who said he won't vote for him again. ``Is he ever going to come clean?'' Smith asked.

Once virtually unbeatable, Condit's hold was shaken in May when Levy, an intern for the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, disappeared. As the weeks passed, questions mounted about their relationship and Condit became a staple of supermarket tabloids and cable TV talk shows.

Eventually Condit, 53, acknowledged a romantic relationship with Levy, according to a police source. But he kept silent publicly for more than three months, finally giving a series of interviews in which he said he had ``very close'' relations with Levy but denied any involvement in her disappearance.

Levy's mother, Susan, and brother, Adam, said they had no comment on Condit's decision Friday.

During the summer, Condit's negative reviews led his son to say his father shouldn't run again, a position he reversed on Friday.

It will quickly be apparent whether the race between Condit and Cardoza veers from the issues to Levy, said state Sen. Dick Monteith of Modesto, an erstwhile Condit ally who is seeking the Republican nomination for the seat.

``Hold on to your hat!'' he said.