As he drove past the alfalfa fields and dairies of the semi-rural communities of Lakewood and Bellflower in the late 1940s, Paul E. Zeltner, then a young sheriff's deputy, recalls that he would sometimes fire a shot at a fleeing jack rabbit.
Homes and shopping centers have replaced the fields and Zeltner is now a silver-haired Republican Assembly candidate who is taking aim at his Democratic rival, Edward K. Waters.
As Tuesday's hotly contested 54th Assembly District election comes down to the wire, Zeltner, 61, who retired as a sheriff's captain and is now a Lakewood city councilman, boasts that his roots in the district make him the best candidate.
"My God, I've been here for 40 years," he declared at a recent Lakewood fund-raising luncheon attended by Gov. George Deukmejian. "I feel like I'm a part" of the community.
In contrast, he contends that the 31-year-old Waters has "no roots here. He hasn't lived here. He hasn't done anything here. . . . "
Energy to Unify
Waters dismisses the assertion, saying he has worked in Compton and has the energy to unify the district's diverse neighborhoods.
For Zeltner, his local connections, including success as a nonpartisan elected official in Lakewood, are at the heart of his campaign. A key question is whether Zeltner's popularity in Lakewood will spill over into a partisan contest in a district that stretches beyond his Lakewood to include Bellflower, Compton, Paramount, parts of eastern Long Beach, and Willowbrook, an unincorporated community northwest of Compton.
The district has been represented for 14 years by Democrat Frank Vicencia, who is retiring. Registered Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans better than 2 to 1. Still, Republicans--led by Supervisor Deane Dana--regard Zeltner as an appealing politician in the mold of moderate Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk), who in 1984 upset his Democratic opponent to capture the neighboring, and heavily Democratic, 63rd District.
Further, they say that Zeltner has enhanced his credentials in government by pressing for reforms in cable television laws and championing laws to crack down on sales of drug paraphernalia to minors.
But as the campaign grinds to an end, the better-financed Waters has attempted to turn Zeltner's expenses for city business, including legislative lobbying, into a campaign issue. Waters says that as a councilman Zeltner has a right to travel on city business, but questions whether the taxpayers should foot bills for Zeltner and other city officials at what Waters called "the fanciest hotels" and "the fanciest restaurants."
Nancy Hicks, Lakewood's finance director, said the council has allocated each of its five members about $5,500 a year for lobbying and other expenses. She said Zeltner's bills "haven't exceeded the authorized expenses."
But in the candidates' only face-to-face appearance, on Oct. 17 at the Bellflower Kiwanis Club, Zeltner's expense account sparked the election's most bitter clash.
Waters assailed Zeltner for expenses charged to his city-issued credit card and approving expenses of other city officials. In interviews and in mailings to voters, Waters' campaign has complained that Lakewood officials have spent more than $1,800 in taxpayer funds at the Firehouse restaurant, not far from the Capitol in Sacramento.
Zeltner angrily denounced Waters' allegations as "crap" and a "smear." But he acknowledged going to places like the Firehouse at city expense because "when you go to Sacramento and you are attempting to lobby for the people of your city you take those legislators out and sponsor them at the watering holes; they don't sponsor you."
Zeltner also said that when he travels out of town on city business for more than two days, he brings his wife, Patricia, at taxpayer expense.
In an interview, Zeltner said: "My wife is invaluable to me on those things. . . . so when I go out of town for a few days, I have my wife with me. . . . and if the folks here don't like it, they can always get somebody else to do the job."
Zeltner's sharp-tongued response illustrates the feisty political style that has helped him win three City Council elections and become a major figure in Lakewood's political establishment.
Now that he is campaigning for partisan office, Zeltner is downplaying his GOP affiliation in the district where Democratic registration is around 66% compared to about 26% for Republicans. "I'm a Republican by label," Zeltner said, "but what I am by philosophy is somewhere between moderate and conservative. That's what the district is."
Waters, too, has portrayed himself as a moderate. Both Zeltner and Waters oppose the reconfirmation of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and support the death penalty.