10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, May 27, 2010

By JIM MILLER
Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Primary losses for legislative incumbents are about as common as meteor strikes in California, but two Inland members find themselves with challenges next month in this most sour of campaign seasons.

Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter, D-Rialto, and Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, are among five legislators statewide who face primary opponents in the June 8 election.

Carter will share the 62nd Assembly District ballot with Gil Navarro, a San Bernardino school board member who ran against her two years ago.

Nestande’s opponent in the 64th Assembly District is Jeffrey Lemasters Tahir, a Riverside attorney and self-described supporter of the tea party movement’s conservative activism and distrust of government.

Tahir and Navarro have raised only a few thousand dollars between them. Neither has received high-profile endorsements. And Carter and Nestande do not confront scandal, reshaped districts or other circumstances that have spelled primary trouble for past incumbents.

History also is on the incumbents’ side: Only seven legislative or congressional incumbents have lost in primaries in the last 30 years.

But it’s a turbulent political season. Budgets are bad, programs have been cut and taxes raised. Recent polls show that only about 13 percent of California voters approve of the Legislature’s job performance.

And last week’s election results for U.S. Senate seats in Pennsylvania and Kentucky — defeats for U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary and party-backed Trey Grayson in Kentucky’s GOP primary — offered further evidence of voters’ bad mood.

“Going against an incumbent is a very difficult thing,” said Tahir, who reported raising $1,600 through March 17, with $303 on hand. “But what we’re seeing across party lines is this dissatisfaction with incumbents. I certainly have a lot more optimism after Tuesday.”

Tahir said he looked at Nestande’s record and judged him to be an inadequate advocate for Republican values.

Nestande, who had about $31,000 in the bank in March, defended his record.

He said he is dedicated to Republican values and has tried to shrink state government. He pointed to billions in spending cuts adopted by the Legislature last year and to his bills meant to improve transparency in state finances and to generate money to build UC Riverside’s medical school.

Nestande said elections are healthy. But he downplayed the risks posed by Tahir’s challenge.

“If you’ve been a Republican incumbent for many, many years, there might be an issue because then you’ve been part of the problem,” Nestande said. “But I’ve been here just a year and a half and I’ve been reversing 10, 15 years of state government.”

Carter potentially faces the biggest primary threat of any incumbent.

Navarro received 40 percent of the vote in 2008 even though Carter outspent him at least 12-to-1 and Assembly Democrats gave her a hand with phone banking. The caucus is helping out again.

Carter, a former school board member who has a Rialto high school named after her, said she has been a strong advocate for schools. She serves on the Assembly Education Committee and leads the budget subcommittee that oversees education.

“I can’t think of a better advocate than myself,” she said. She had $130,000 on hand as of May 22.

Carter said she is not underestimating Navarro, however.

“He’s been in the community a long time. He probably knows a lot of people. He had to run and get elected to (the San Bernardino County Board of Education),” she said. “I think my constituents understand I work very hard in good times and bad times.”

Navarro complained that Carter’s tenure has been dominated by awards ceremonies and feel-good community workshops while state government crumbles.

Carter, he said, should be taking more of an active role in holding state officials accountable. He mentioned the congestion caused by construction around I-210 and I-10.

“As a state legislator, she should have been aware of that and intervened,” said Navarro, who reported just $93 on hand as of March 17, his most recent report.

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