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The 55th Assembly District Race : 2nd Part of Double-Header Voting May Determine Control of Key Seat

May 27, 1986|JANET CLAYTON | Times Staff Writer

In the Eastside's 55th Assembly District, June 3 is the date for an election double-header, and it's not one for voters with a short attention span. There is a lot to remember in this one.

Former legislative aide Richard Polanco is all but assured of winning the seat for the rest of this year, but in a more important race that will probably determine who holds the seat for at least the next two years, he is facing a stiff fight from Mike Hernandez, a bail bonds and insurance agent.

The unusual dual election is taking place because Richard Alatorre, who represented the Eastside and Northeast Los Angeles 55th assembly district for 13 years, resigned last December when he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council. Polanco, a former Alatorre aide who moved to the district from Duarte, ran against Hernandez and seven other candidates in April to fill the remainder of Alatorre's term, which lasts till Dec. 1.

State law mandated that if no candidate won a majority, a runoff--scheduled to coincide with the regular primary--would be held among the top vote-getters from each political party.

Polanco and Hernandez are both Democrats. So, although Hernandez's 37% of the vote was a close second to Polanco's 39%, the runoff for the unexpired term is between Polanco, Republican Loren Lutz, Libertarian Sarah E. Foster and Michael Zinzun of the Peace and Freedom Party. Because the district has a 68% Democratic registration, Polanco is all but assured of winning.

On a second spot on the June 3 ballot, meanwhile, voters will hold a conventional primary to pick a Democratic nominee for a full two-year term. The Democratic nomination is considered the bigger prize because its winner would become the heavy favorite to win the full two-year term in November, and would have a good chance at taking control of the seat for years to come. Competing in the Democratic primary along with Hernandez and Polanco are Lowell "Ernie" Akui, Thomas Williams and Gonzalo Molina.

Under these circumstances, Polanco could wind up winning the special election June 3 and taking office for six months--but losing the primary and being replaced in December.

Could Be Embarrassing

That would prove embarrassing not only for Polanco, but for the major powers behind him--his former boss and longtime friend, Alatorre, and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), whose top aides are running the campaign and who is now personally campaigning for Polanco.

The competition between the well-connected Polanco and the once-obscure Hernandez first emerged in the heated April campaign. It was characterized by Polanco mailers that attacked Hernandez as a bail bondsman who released "child molesters, drug smugglers and rapists." Many observers theorized that Polanco's unexpectedly narrow victory margin indicated a backlash against the campaign tactics.

One Polanco supporter, who asked not to be identified but whose words were echoed by many others, said of the April effort: "Polanco blew it before with that stupid mail campaign, people backlashed against it. He had lost before (when he ran in an adjacent district in 1982 against Assemblywoman Gloria Molina), and he just wanted to do what he had to to win. He should have won that hands down."

For June 3, Polanco has made a complete turnaround. Now his mailers are upbeat, extolling his experience and endorsements. The literature exudes nothing but sweetness, showcasing Polanco in pictures with children and quoting him as saying, "In the end we're not judged by the wealth we leave behind but by the legacy we give to the children we love."

Stepped Up Approach

Hernandez, meanwhile, has stepped up the approach he used in April, citing his roots in the district and criticizing Polanco for only recently moving to the area. In contrast to the last campaign, the only mail attacks this time around have come from Hernandez, whose mailers call Polanco "imported from outside our community and financed by Sacramento special interests."

On Wednesday, the Polanco campaign obtained a court order to stop Hernandez from calling himself the Democratic "nominee" instead of merely a Democratic candidate. And on Friday, Polanco sued the Hernandez campaign for $1 million, saying it had committed "libel and slander" in literature saying that Polanco was "convicted of election fraud" two years ago.

Polanco was, in fact, fined $3,000 in 1984 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for two 1982 campaign law violations--inflating the amount of contributions and accepting a cash contribution of more than $100--but there was no actual "conviction" involved in the noncriminal proceeding.

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