Dressed as a cowpoke in a shoot-'em-up Western, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) looked as if he could have been itching for a fight Sunday evening as he mingled with 400 friends and supporters attending his barbecue fund-raiser at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.
Katz's get-up, complete with Stetson, cowboy boots, pearl-buttoned Western shirt and bolo tie, was a costume. The showdown was the real thing.
Although 11 state and congressional seats are up for grabs this fall in the Valley and eastern Ventura County, only the Richard Katz-Robert F. Thoreson match promises to be a donnybrook.
The three-term assemblyman from Sepulveda is fighting to hang onto his seat in a district some have regarded as a political Boot Hill. The 39th Assembly District in the past has been notorious for its fickle independent-minded voters who do not hesitate to throw out incumbents.
Katz, a Democratic leader in the Assembly, already has succeeded in holding onto his seat longer than his predecessors in recent times. Voters in this richly diverse district--which encompasses Latino and black neighborhoods in San Fernando and Pacoima, upper-middle-class areas in Northridge and blue-collar tract homes in Sepulveda--usually replace their assemblyman with someone from the opposite party after one or two terms.
Katz's Republican opponent, Thoreson, 42, an auto-theft detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, is hoping history will repeat itself. Thoreson, backed by Gov. George Deukmejian, Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) and Republican lawmakers up and down the state, says it is his party's turn to recapture the seat.
The GOP has included the race in its handful of must-win Assembly contests statewide. To show the party's commitment, the governor appeared as the honored guest at Thoreson's cocktail party / fund-raiser attended by 175 people last week at the Sheraton Premiere Hotel in Universal City.
"It will be hot and furious in the coming months," promised Thoreson, a Reaganite conservative who has been with the police department for 15 years.
It will almost certainly be the Valley's most expensive race. Before the smoke clears, the two opponents predict they each will have invested $500,000 toward victory.
The duel is a rematch. Two years ago Thoreson, a political newcomer, brought thousands of new GOP adherents onto the county voter registration rolls in an aggressive drive and managed to collect 46% of the vote. Nonetheless, Katz still won with a comfortable 54% lead.
Thoreson's chief strategy for the fall campaign season could be summed up in one word: attack. GOP legislative staff members, on loan from Nolan, have helped scour Katz's six-year voting record on thousands of bills looking for political liabilities. Thoreson, billing himself as a law-and-order candidate, is portraying his opponent as a coddler of criminals, calling him a "taxer and spender" who has little respect for tax-cutting Proposition 13.
But the choices facing the voters are not that black and white. Katz is generally regarded as a moderate who sometimes balks at following the liberal Democratic leadership of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco. For instance, Katz opposes the confirmation of state Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and supports the death penalty.
Katz says he plans to keep his job by reminding his constituents of his legislative achievements and his extensive community involvement, which has included holding district breakfasts with guest speakers such as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and astronaut Sally Ride.
Katz, 36, has written landmark legislation on toxic waste cleanup and water trading and has seen many of his anti-crime and small business bills signed into law. As chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee during the past two years, Katz prompted a state investigation of graft by top state Department of Transportation officials and took the lead in attempting to find a way to replace dangerous school buses across the state.
He also challenged the powerful trucking lobby by fighting for his "stop-the-rocks" bill, which would have required trucks to cover their loads with tarpaulins to prevent spilling rock and gravel from cracking motorists' windshields. The bill was defeated.
"I'm going to run on what I've done . . . I think it's a good record," Katz said. He said he does not plan to attack Thoreson in the campaign.
The real winner in the race could be the U.S. Postal Service. Since radio and TV advertising is both expensive and impractical in reaching the relatively small audience, both candidates plan to spend much of their money clogging voters' mailboxes with their literature