SACRAMENTO — Even before Friday's filing deadline for the June primary, the Democratic contest in the 54th Assembly District promises to become a dogfight.
When Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower) announced in January that he would not seek reelection, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) launched a search for a "consensus candidate" who would have the Assembly leadership's support.
Brown said late last week that he is still searching and that the Assembly Democratic caucus will not decide whether to endorse any candidate until Friday.
The speaker's aim is to ensure that the district, where Democrats hold more than a 2-to-1 registration edge, remains solidly Democratic. At the same time, Democrats would like to minimize the amount of money spent in the intra-party fight.
Brown said he would also like to find a qualified black candidate to represent the racially mixed district, which covers Compton, Lakewood, Bellflower, Paramount and North Long Beach.
10 Democrats Interested
It is unclear whether his efforts to unify Democrats will succeed.
For one thing, 10 Democratic candidates have declared an interest in the seat. Among them are Edward K. Waters, the son of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who is a key Brown lieutenant; two longtime allies of Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), and several well-known current and former local officials.
In a telephone interview from Washington last week, Dymally said the large primary field and the expected entry of Waters' son into the race pose the most "confusing" and "difficult" dilemma for Democratic leaders he has seen in the past 20 years.
Initially, Dymally agreed to support Kent A. Spieller, a former aide who is now a lawyer living in Bellflower, but he said he later withdrew the endorsement when Brown launched his effort to support one candidate.
Still, Dymally voiced concern that before Brown targets a single candidate for support he must confer with other potential candidates, not merely Assembly Democratic leaders. Without such agreement, he said, "there's no consensus."
Brown, his voice rising, said Dymally "would be well advised to keep his nose in Congress. He'd better be supportive of whoever we come up with if we decide on somebody. Dymally would be crazy to do otherwise. This is our house, not Dymally's house."
Brown said he is interviewing candidates in the 54th District--as he is doing in open seats elsewhere in the state--to determine their ability as campaigners.
Democratic legislative leaders are also grappling with whether to support a black candidate. One black Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, asserted that a black could not win the general election because only about 20% of the district's voters are black.
Dymally conceded that the 54th is not a black district. It is split by the Long Beach Freeway, with the areas to the west, including Compton, primarily black, and the areas to the east primarily filled with white residents. But he speculated that a black could win.
Speaker Brown went even further to suggest a black candidate could win "easily.'
Indeed, Brown said he would prefer a black nominee "because I would like to see racial minority representation. And as the black speaker of this body one of my responsibilities is to enhance the opportunities for racial minorities and women and, to the extent I can do that, I will."
A handful of black candidates are vying for the nomination.
Among them are Waters, 30, West Coast coordinator for the Free South Africa Movement, which has spearheaded U. S. protests against apartheid; Willard Murray, 55, a Dymally aide now on a leave of absence, and Doris Davis, a former Compton mayor and city clerk, who declined to give her age.
Assemblywoman Steers Clear
Waters could not be reached for comment. But Assemblywoman Waters said she has steered clear of attempts to persuade her colleagues to support her son.
The assemblywoman said she will support her son if he files for the race. But she said she is uncertain what the rest of the Assembly leadership will do.
The assemblywoman said her son has worked in her past campaigns but "not in any high-visibility roles."
Waters said she has not asked her son to enter the race. "He's not a kid," she said. "He makes decisions based on talking to a lot of people and I was one of them."
Dymally said the contest poses a particular problem because Murray, who lost a special Assembly election in Los Angeles a decade ago, and Spieller are close to him.
Murray, who recently moved into the district, takes a leave of absence from his job with Dymally during election years to prepare slate campaign mailers that are sent to voters in South-Central Los Angeles. Murray said that, like Dymally, he endorsed Spieller initially, but he changed his mind and jumped into the contest when he realized that others were running.
Scoffs at Race as Issue