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Waters Wins Democratic Battle in 54th Assembly District

June 05, 1986|MARK GLADSTONE and WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writers

In one of the state's most bitter and bruising legislative contests, 30-year-old Edward K. Waters emerged on Tuesday from political obscurity to outdistance eight rivals and capture the Democratic nomination for the 54th Assembly District.

In final but unofficial results, Waters won about 25% of the vote compared to his nearest challengers--congressional aide Willard Murray, who took 20%, and former Compton Mayor Doris Davis, who took 15%.

Waters' first political victory sets the stage for what is anticipated to be another heated campaign in the Nov. 4 general election against Paul E. Zeltner, 60, a Lakewood city councilman, who was the lone candidate on the Republican ballot.

With that contest in mind, a beaming Waters, 30, the son of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), told 100 cheering supporters early Wednesday at his Compton headquarters that "it's a time when all Democrats have to come together. . . . The district is Democratic. . . ." If Waters is elected, the Assembly will have its first mother-son combination.

The dogfight was prompted by the retirement of Assemblyman Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower), who has held the seat for 12 years in the district, where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 registration edge. The district includes Bellflower, Compton, Lakewood, Paramount and parts of Long Beach and Willowbrook.

Support From Speaker

The battle was especially bloody because Waters was backed by Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) while Murray carried the support of a powerful West Los Angeles political organization and Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), who has been at odds with Brown over the years.

From the outset, the campaign focused on Waters, who left his job as an investigator with a federally funded agency that helps people displaced by the Century Freeway find new homes. Registering in Compton in February, Waters won the endorsement of Brown, who helped Waters raise an estimated $500,000.

With that large bankroll, Waters was able to overcome criticism that he was "a carpetbagger" with an aggressive campaign that flooded the district with mailers extolling Waters' virtues, young volunteers knocking on doors and endorsements from unions and police groups.

In declaring victory, Waters praised his cheering supporters but momentarily paused to also say that it was his "relationship with Jesus Christ that keeps me together."

"Christ is glorified today and not Ed Waters," said the youthful candidate who before the campaign had helped organize a Bible study group.

Skepticism by Legislators

Besides capitalizing on being a new face in district politics, Waters was able to overcome skepticism by some Democratic legislators that a black could win. Indeed, the top three Democratic vote-getters are black.

Still, race could become a factor in November. Douglas Bystry, who helped manage the campaign of Ray O'Neal, a white former Bellflower city councilman, predicted that Waters' victory would prompt "a lot of white Democrats" to support Zeltner.

Zeltner, a former sheriff's captain, said race would not be an issue. Instead, he said that he would woo conservative Democrats on the basis of his longtime ties to the district and his stands on issues.

Zeltner got a jump on the general election by qualifying as a write-in candidate on the Democratic ballot, but the count of write-in votes was not expected to begin until today.

"I don't think it will be an easy race, considering the money behind him (Waters)," said Zeltner, echoing some of the sentiments of Waters' Democratic opponents.

Yet one Waters opponent--Kent A. Spieller, 34, a Bellflower lawyer--telephoned Waters to congratulate his opponent and offer his support in November. Spieller came in a distant fourth with 11% but captured the most votes among the white candidates.

'Gracious Winner'

Spieller's campaign consultant, Harvey Englander, called Waters "an extremely gracious winner." He said Waters was able to capitalize on an early start and the fact that no other candidate was able to catch fire. Englander also said that the low-turnout--only 38% in Los Angeles County--hurt Spieller but he speculated that blacks in Compton were encouraged to vote because there were three strong black candidates in the contest. A precinct-by- precinct breakdown of district voting, however, was not immediately available.

Spieller, who spent an estimated $220,000, said Waters' victory showed "the influence of money in politics." He went on to predict that Democrats would line up behind Waters. "Any primary election squabble has nothing to do with the general election," said Spieller, who during the campaign termed Waters "a puppet" of Speaker Brown.

But O'Neal, who finished behind Spieller with 10% of the vote, stopped short of supporting Waters.

"I don't think he needs the endorsement of anyone in this race. He's got enough endorsements with the Willie Browns and Frank Vicencias and the unions and his momma that he don't need anybody else."

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