"I'm running as the Republican candidate in this district," Jeanne Nemo declared to an audience during a recent campaign swing through the West San Fernando Valley.
Her remark was surprisingly blunt because Nemo is running for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in a nonpartisan race where candidates rarely make an issue of party affiliation.
It is a strategy that Nemo says is necessary to beat the better-funded, better-known incumbent, Joy Picus, in the April 9 election.
Nemo and another Republican in the race, Matt Lynch, are trying to exploit the fact that Picus, a Democrat, is running for reelection in a district that has traditionally supported GOP candidates and conservative causes.
The technique is not novel but its intensity is. And the issue may become even more dominant because of a recent state Supreme Court ruling that for the first time permits political parties to play a formal role in nonpartisan politics.
Strategy Doesn't Scare Picus
Picus, however, scoffed at suggestions that a partisan race would hurt her.
"It's not a wise strategy," she said. "There are very few Republicans who are going to vote for somebody simply because he or she is a Republican."
Besides, Picus contended, her polls show that voters don't even know her party loyalties, although last year she was elected as a Walter Mondale delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
"I do not have a highly partisan image," she said.
Nevertheless, the performance of voters in Picus' 3rd District makes it clear why Nemo and Lynch are trying to make the election a partisan race rather than a referendum on Picus' record as a two-term councilwoman.
The district, which includes Canoga Park, Reseda, west Van Nuys, Winnetka and parts of Tarzana and Woodland Hills, has a Democratic registration majority of 49% to 40%. But it supported Ronald Reagan over Mondale in last year's presidential election by a margin of 62% to 38%. It favored Republican George Deukmejian over Democrat Tom Bradley in the 1982 gubernatorial race by 53% to 47%.
Voters in the district also approved Proposition 13 in 1978, 81% to 19%, and Proposition 36, Howard Jarvis' ill-fated "Save 13" measure on last November's ballot, by 56% to 44%. Picus opposed both measures--a fact that both Nemo and Lynch say they will hammer away at.
"The district supports Republican candidates and I'm Republican," said Nemo, a 55-year-old schoolteacher who lives in Tarzana. "Everywhere I go, I'm campaigning on the theme that my philosophy is more attuned to the district than Picus'."
Political party ties can be important in these days of sophisticated campaign techniques, where even candidates with limited budgets can target their mailings to specific groups.
In fact Picus, in her successful 1977 campaign against then-incumbent Councilman Don Lorenzen, sent a mailer to Republicans only that contained a large headline, "Reagan endorses Picus." The headline referred to Picus' endorsement by Maureen Reagan, the President's daughter.
Nemo--a delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention and a former vice president of the California Republican Assembly, a volunteer organization of conservative Republicans--is asking the county Republican Central Committee to break ground by making its first endorsement in a city race.
Such endorsements are now legal because of a Dec. 27 state Supreme Court ruling that a political party can endorse a candidate in a nonpartisan race without violating the state Constitution.
At issue was the state Republican Party's formal resolution in 1982 urging Californians to vote against confirmation of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
The state Constitution considers judicial offices--as well as city, county and school offices--to be nonpartisan. That distinction was written into the California Constitution early in the century in an effort to limit any corrupting influence of party politics.
It is the major reason that California's political parties exercise relatively little control in local elections, in contrast to strong party machines in states such as Illinois and New York.
There has never been a prohibition on individual party officials taking sides in nonpartisan races, and Nemo has been able to build and circulate literature boasting a list of dozens of Republican supporters that reads like a GOP "Who's Who." Among them are former county GOP chairmen Art McClure and Richard Gulbranson, and major GOP fund-raisers Julian Virtue and Fred Lyte. Lyte, a wealthy San Marino businessman, has donated $10,000 to Nemo's campaign.
Campaign War Chests
Nemo has raised about $40,000 so far and plans to hold a $50-a-plate dinner featuring Arthur Laffer, an economic adviser to the President, Feb. 19 at a private home in Brentwood.
Picus recently held a $200-a-plate dinner that boosted her campaign war chest to $200,000.
Lynch, a 50-year-old attorney from Winnetka who has raised $55,000, will hold a a $100-a-plate dinner tonight at a Reseda nightclub.