Republican Robert F. Thoreson, who is challenging Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) in one of the most hotly contested races in the state, is doing something no one expected him to do: he's courting the endorsements of black ministers in Pacoima.
To Katz's irritation, the conservative Thoreson is getting some of them to support him--which is unheard of in the history of the community. And, according to Thoreson's campaign strategists, it could make the difference on Election Day.
"I think the church has a moral obligation to keep its people informed so they can make the right decisions," said the Rev. Dudley Chatman, one of those Thoreson has won over. Chatman is pastor of Greater Community Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Pacoima, which has never in its 44-year history endorsed anyone but a Democrat.
Two years ago, Katz clobbered Thoreson in Pacoima by 10 to 1. That helped Katz build a 54% to 46% victory over Thoreson, 42, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department auto-theft detail.
But Thoreson immediately announced that he would try again to defeat Katz in the 39th Assembly District, which is known for its fickleness in electing representatives first from one party and then the other.
Democrats Hold Edge
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by 56.8% to 34.9%, it is considered competitive by Republicans. GOP Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale has made the race a priority for the Republicans. According to the latest campaign contribution reports, Nolan has given Thoreson $50,000 for his campaign.
But, to win, Thoreson needs not only to build support in conservative areas like Northridge and Granada Hills, but to find a way to erode some of Katz's support in areas with heavy Democratic registration.
Thoreson's campaign strategists say Pacoima is the key. Don Ediger, Thoreson's campaign manager, said that, if Thoreson can capture 30% of the vote in this heavily Democratic enclave, he could beat the three-term incumbent.
For months, Thoreson has been courting the black Pacoima ministers and their parishioners. Every Sunday morning, he's been speaking, sometimes from the pulpit, to congregations. And he's been handing out literature at the churches and attending meetings of the Pacoima ministers organization.
Thoreson said 20 pastors of the 30-plus black churches in Pacoima have endorsed him, a claim Katz can neither confirm nor deny. The Minister Fellowship of San Fernando and Vicinity, which represents many of these churches, is expected to vote to endorse one of the candidates Saturday morning.
"There will be a great number who will go the other way," said the Rev. John Lett, the fellowship's president, referring to those who will endorse Thoreson. But he predicted that, in the end, "Mr. Katz will get the most support."
On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) flew down to speak to ministers and other community leaders in Pacoima during a breakfast meeting held by Katz. Katz said the appearance was long-planned and had nothing to do with Thoreson's efforts to get the ministers' endorsements. However, Brown talked to them about the importance of their supporting Katz, pointing out his legislative accomplishments for the community.
Katz, trying to downplay Thoreson's inroads into the black community, said most Pacoima voters remain solidly behind him.
"My support in Pacoima is as strong as it's always been," Katz said. "I expect to run well in Pacoima. The community people and leadership I talk to . . . are all supporting me."
How much clout the ministers have remains unclear. The ministers will not speculate on whether their endorsements will bring in votes from the pews. However, it is traditional for candidates in black communities to go to the churches to seek votes, whether it be Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley or Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.
"As a minister or pastor . . . you can influence your congregation to move in certain directions," said Carlos Jones, a local banker and president of the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce.
One of Thoreson's supporters is the Rev. Archie Johnson of Parks Chapel AME Church, who echoed the sentiment of some of the clergy who contend that Democrats have taken them for granted.
"We do know how to check the ballot and we don't have to check it one way," Johnson promised.
But some Pacoima leaders have criticized the ministers for endorsing a conservative Republican who they contend cannot represent the needs of the community in Sacramento because of basic philosophical differences. They suggest that the ministers are flattered by the attention Thoreson has paid to them and are therefore not looking at their choices on Nov. 4 critically.
'They Go Off Half-Cocked'