SACRAMENTO — Even before the ballots are cast in Tuesday's heated 54th Assembly District Democratic primary, one result is assured: Democrats will have plenty of potholders.
Three candidates--Willard Murray, Kent A. Spieller and Edward K. Waters--have mailed out thousands of the brightly colored potholders, which cost about 30 cents each, to catch voters' attention.
The potholder gimmick underscores the large amount of money being raised and spent by the nine Democratic candidates to capture the seat now held by retiring Assemblyman Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower).
Indeed, campaign statements filed with state and county election officials showed that a week before the election, the bruising primary battle was turning into one of the costliest legislative primaries in state history.
As of Wednesday, roughly $800,000 had been raised to capture the heavily Democratic district, which covers Bellflower, Compton, Lakewood, Paramount and parts of Long Beach and Willowbrook.
Waters, 30, led the field in fund raising with about $323,000. More than one-third of his total-- $142,000 in contributions and support services--was donated by Waters' mother, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) loaned Waters $10,000 and chipped in another $36,000 worth of such campaign support services as postage.
His closest rival in fund raising was Bellflower lawyer Spieller, 34, who reported nearly $190,000 in contributions, including $10,000 from Sen. Ralph Dills (D-Gardena). He was followed by former Compton Mayor Doris A. Davis, 50, who reported obtaining about $130,000, including $88,000 she borrowed. Murray, 55, an aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), trailed with about $71,000 in contributions--much of it from the West Los Angeles political organization of Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman.
As the campaign enters the homestretch, such issues as reducing crime or improving the education system have given way to personalities and potholder-style gimmicks. Voters have been bombarded with mailers, telephone surveys, candidates knocking on doors, Davis volunteers handing out nail files and Waters workers handing out potted plants.
Not to be outdone, Lakewood City Councilman Paul E. Zeltner, 60, the lone Republican on the GOP ballot, last week announced he would be a write-in candidate on the Democratic side.
Still, many voters remain up in the air about their choice. Harvey Englander, a veteran campaign consultant who is overseeing Spieller's race, said his voter surveys show "there's a large undecided vote out there. A lot of people haven't focused in yet on this race."
Richie Ross, who is on leave as Brown's chief of staff to oversee the Waters' campaign and other races, has estimated that because the field is so split the winner could emerge with 21% of the vote.
One unknown is the number of voters, especially in Compton, who recall Davis, a former city clerk and mayor. She has been out of politics for a decade. But her opponents acknowledge that as the only woman on the ballot, the tall, outgoing campaigner could have the edge in capturing support from women voters.
Compounding the uncertainty is whether voters would choose such candidates as Bellflower school board member Larry Ward, 43, with long ties to the district or, instead, turn to such relative newcomers as Waters, who registered in the district in February, or Murray or Spieller, who also have moved into the district in the past year.
From the opening round, Waters and his relationship to Speaker Brown have loomed over the campaign.
Brown said that he would prefer a black nominee because "as the black speaker of this body one of my responsibilities is to enhance the opportunities for racial minorities and women." Later, he agreed to endorse Waters, whose mother is one of his top lieutenants and one of the most well-known black politicians in the state.
Brown's support has triggered criticism from other candidates. For instance at a candidates' forum in Compton last week, candidate Ray O'Neal, 48, a former Bellflower city councilman, said "It's a shame that our leadership, Mr. Brown and some of the other fat cats up there in Sacramento have pushed this man on the district as the most qualified man. . . ."
Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) said, "Willie has been the main target . . . because of his coming in and trying to be the boss." Dymally himself was torn over who to support--Spieller or Murray--but finally endorsed Murray, who works in the congressman's office.
Before the campaign, Waters was held an obscure job investigating complaints for a federally funded agency designed to help relocate people displaced by the Century Freeway. He also coordinated protests against the South African consulate in Beverly Hills.
Waters portrays himself as a conservative Democrat who supports the death penalty and is opposed to the reconfirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird. He also opposes abortion.