The battle for the 51st Assembly District seat features a showdown between an influential Republican incumbent who easily won reelection two years ago and an underfinanced, fledgling Democratic challenger who hopes to ride a wave of concern over pollution in Santa Monica Bay all the way to Sacramento.
Already in the capital, resting comfortably with more than $150,000 in contributions, is four-term Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando. A former dentist from San Pedro, Felando wields considerable influence in conservative circles in Sacramento as caucus chairman of the Assembly's so-called "cave-man" Republican clique headed by conservative Minority Leader Patrick Nolan (R-Glendale).
Supporters and opponents alike have described Felando as abrasive, stubborn, rude and brash. Felando, 51, who says he is none of those unless provoked, prefers to be called tenacious.
"I don't let go," he said in a recent interview. "I don't take no for an answer."
Struggling for recognition, with a campaign budget of less than $15,000, is challenger Jon Mercant, a soft-spoken attorney from Redondo Beach, who was drafted by the local Democratic Party to take on Felando.
Mercant, 35, an amateur musician who is co-founder of South Bay Concern, a fund-raising group for youth services organizations, has been active in the local peace movement. He also serves on the board of directors of CLOUT (Children's Legislative Organization United by Trauma), an outgrowth of the McMartin Preschool molestation case. Also, he recently established the Coastal Environment Coalition to raise public awareness of environmental issues, particularly those involving Santa Monica Bay.
Opponents say Mercant is an inexperienced newcomer, too liberal for the traditionally conservative district, and lacking the political clout that Felando has garnered over eight years in Sacramento. Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the district 89,000 to 67,000.
Supporters say Mercant would make a dedicated legislator, free from the special-interest ties that they say have controlled Felando. Yet even those rallying behind Mercant say privately that his genial, noncombative style and his relatively bare campaign coffers make the task of knocking off the entrenched incumbent all but impossible.
In an interview last week, Mercant, too, was reluctant to predict victory. "Obviously as an incumbent with a lot of money, (Felando) has the big advantage," Mercant said. "That is unfortunate."
Also in the ring, but by his own reckoning out of the contest, is Libertarian candidate Rodney J. Dobson. A Redondo Beach resident and an engineer for Rockwell International, Dobson has collected less than $500 in contributions, which he attributes to "a feeling that a lot of people aren't ready for what Libertarians are saying."
Dobson, nonetheless, describes the South Bay as "a hotbed for Libertarianism" and says his goal is to educate the public about his alternative.
"The Democrats are (the big spenders) who want to control your money, while the Republicans don't care what you do with your money, but they want to control your social responsibilities," said Dobson, 38. "They want to tell you what you can do with your body. Libertarians are opposed to both types of control."
While acknowledging that the odds are against him, Mercant has not given up on his second bid for the Assembly, working hard to overcome the odds by concentrating on door-to-door canvassing and grass-roots fund-raisers. In 1984, he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Doris Tate, mother of slain actress Sharon Tate, who lost to Felando in the general election by a 2-1 margin.
Mercant is focusing his campaign on what he considers to be Felando's biggest weakness: environmental issues, particularly pollution in Santa Monica Bay. The 51st District, which includes a portion of San Pedro, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Torrance and the beach cities, is an oceanfront district, and Mercant believes people are worried about what is happening to the area's most precious resource.
"This district is supported tremendously by sportfishing, tourism, restaurants and other businesses related to the bay," Mercant said. "If people can't go in the water because of pollution, it will have a big effect on the local economy. We need to support some cleanup efforts."
Felando supports offshore oil drilling--including placing platforms in Santa Monica Bay--and he has voted against several Democratic-led proposals to clean up the bay. The California Public Interest Research Group, which tracks legislation dealing with environmental and consumer protection matters, ranked Felando as the worst member of the Assembly on those issues last year--with a rating of 16 out of a possible 100 points.