By all appearances, the 1986 election season should be another cakewalk for incumbent state Assemblyman Tom Bane (D-Tarzana).
Bane is an influential member of the state Assembly and sits on powerful committees such as Finance and Insurance, Governmental Organizations and Intergovernmental Relations. Even though he has no opposition in the June 3 primary, he already has a campaign war chest of almost $500,000.
When it comes to party registration, Democrats in his 40th Assembly District--which includes Van Nuys and parts of North Hollywood, Reseda, Encino and Northridge--have a substantial edge over Republicans. Bane has represented the district for nearly 18 years, and in the last three general elections he has beaten Republican opponents by a 2-to-1 margin.
"There is no way he can be dislodged," conceded an aide to a San Fernando Valley Republican legislator.
But the two candidates battling for the Republican nomination in the 40th District see the race differently.
"I believe that Republicans have an excellent chance in the district. Look at the registration figures," said candidate Brian Dennis, 31, who changed his party registration from Democratic to Republican two years ago.
"Republicans have gained 4% in the last four years while the Democrats have lost ground," he said. "Creeping Republicanism is a trend throughout the Valley, and that's one reason why there are two candidates in this race."
Said Bruce Dahl, 33, a Van Nuys businessman who is the other Republican candidate: "Bane is vulnerable, but any time a candidate goes against an incumbent, it's going to be an uphill battle. That's why, for a Republican to win in this district, he has to get out there early. And that's why I've been campaigning since January, 1985."
The 40th District lies in the "flats" of the Valley and contains what once was the heart of its economy--Van Nuys Boulevard.
Most of this major thoroughfare is a crowded melange of small businesses that go through boom-and-bust cycles. The General Motors Co. plant, the last active major auto plant on the West Coast, fronts on Van Nuys Boulevard and is a vital part of the area's economy.
But many owners of small stores are involved in an ongoing battle for customers who prefer to shop at enclosed malls.
And the GM plant's future is tenuous because the auto maker plans to phase out its product--Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds--in 1989. Executives say they cannot guarantee that the plant will be kept open after that. Local labor unions are battling to keep the high-paying, blue-collar jobs in the Valley.
Anglos are the majority in the district, but there is a fast-growing Latino population in the neighborhood between Kester Avenue on the west and Hazeltine Avenue on the east.
Most residents in the district own homes. But the number of renters is rapidly increasing, a trend fueled by the construction of high-density apartment buildings geared toward middle-income to lower-middle-income families.
The 40th District has long been considered a Democratic stronghold, and Bane's sweeping victories would seem to prove that. But in races where Bane is not a candidate, Democrats have not dominated opponents.
In 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan garnered 52% of the 40th District vote compared to Democratic President Jimmy Carter's 38%. At the same time, Bane won 65% of the vote, while his Republican opponent managed only 30%.
The district went Democratic in 1982. In the gubernatorial race, Mayor Tom Bradley won the district handily, defeating Gov. George Deukmejian by a 53%-to-46% margin. Former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. took 53% of the vote against the 46% won by his GOP rival, Pete Wilson.
Bane's Percentage Higher
But again Bane's winning percentage was far higher than any other Democrat on the ticket. That year he took 71% of the votes, against the Republican challenger's 28%.
"Sure it bothers us that Bane can pull in more votes than the rest of the ticket, but I don't believe that anyone holds Tom personally responsible; it's the top of the ticket that's supposed to pull the voters in," said Ted Gutman, a member of the executive committee of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley.
In addition, Republicans are slowly increasing their numbers.
In 1980, 59% of the registered voters were Democrats and 31% were Republicans. The most recent figures show Democratic registration has fallen to 54%, while Republicans moved up to 35%.
These registration patterns raise the hopes of 40th District GOP candidates Dahl and Dennis.
Dahl owns a Van Nuys wallpapering business and is affiliated with a Los Angeles architectural design firm. He attended the University of Maryland, California State University, Northridge and holds an associate of arts degree in communications from Los Angeles City College.
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