In an unexpected twist, Republican candidate Paul E. Zeltner has spiced up the already hotly contested Democratic primary in the 54th Assembly District by jumping into the nine-way contest as a write-in candidate.
As the lone candidate on the Republican ballot, the Lakewood city councilman is virtually assured the GOP nomination for the November general election.
With the Democrats badly split, Zeltner figures he could capture the Democratic nomination as well, or, at minimum, gain publicity from the write-in gambit.
"My candidacy will give Democratic voters an alternative to other candidates whose views, records and/or backers are unacceptable to the 54th District's moderate and conservative voters," Zeltner said.
The district has been represented by Assemblyman Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower), who is retiring. With Democratic registration standing at 66% contrasted with 26% for the Republicans, the Democratic nominee would be regarded as the front-runner in the November general election. The district includes Bellflower, Compton, Lakewood, Paramount and parts of Long Beach and Willowbrook.
The nine Democrats are Dan Branstine, 31, a former Lakewood councilman; Thomas Cochee, 54, a former Compton police chief; Doris A. Davis, 50, a former Compton mayor; Marty Israel, a self-described consumer activist; Willard Murray, 55, a congressional aide; Ray O'Neal, 48, a former Bellflower councilman; Kent A. Spieller, 34, a Bellflower lawyer; Larry Ward, 43, a Bellflower school trustee, and Edward K. Waters, 30, who until recently investigated complaints for an agency that helps relocate people displaced by the Century Freeway.
Under state election laws, a candidate from one party may file papers to run as a write-in candidate in another party's primary election, said Marcia Ventura, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office. She confirmed that Zeltner filed his papers on Tuesday and qualified as a write-in, meaning his votes will be tabulated.
While Zeltner's action is unusual, it is not unprecedented. For example, in the neighboring 63rd District, former Assemblyman Bruce Young (D-Cerritos) won his own Democratic nomination as well as the Republican nomination in 1978 and again in 1982.
Zeltner, 60, a former sheriff's captain, said he plans to spend about $4,000 to launch the write-in drive. He said Democratic friends urged him to take the unusual step, but he declined to identify them.
Backed by Council Colleagues
Two Democratic Lakewood City Council colleagues--Jacqueline Rynerson and Larry Van Nostran--have announced their support for Zeltner. Neither said they had encouraged the write-in candidacy.
Rynerson said she endorsed Zeltner because the Democratic leadership in Sacramento, led by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), is supporting Waters, who the councilwoman said "isn't even familiar with the district."
The Zeltner write-in candidacy, Van Nostran said, places him in something of a box. Although Van Nostran has endorsed Zeltner in the general election, he previously agreed to support Murray in the Democratic primary. Now, Van Nostran said, he plans to vote for Zeltner in June and November.
Zeltner repeated complaints by Democratic rivals that voters are upset with Brown's attempt to influence the contest by endorsing Waters. He went on to criticize Waters and Spieller for moving into the district within the past year. And he assailed Murray because he is supported by the West Los Angeles political organization of Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Studio City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
The Democratic candidates expressed surprise at Zeltner's action.
"I find it incredible that what I assume to be a lifelong Republican would attempt to become a Democrat overnight," said Spieller. "And I can't believe the people of the 54th Assembly District will find any merit in the appeal."
'Corruption of the System'
Murray termed the action "a corruption of the system," which, he noted, "is for each party to select its nominee."
Waters dismissed Zeltner's criticism of him. "The bottom line is I don't think Paul Zeltner is a better Democrat than I am," Waters said.
But Ward asserted that Zeltner's maneuver would help the Waters campaign. Ward reasoned that Zeltner would take votes away from the Ward campaign, boosting the Waters effort. Ward said Zeltner is "dying to run against Ed Waters" because he figures he can beat Waters in November.
'If I wanted to help Ed Waters," Zeltner retorted, "I wouldn't be blasting him in everything I put out."