In scoring his upset victory in the heavily Democratic 54th Assembly District on Nov. 4, Republican Paul E. Zeltner handily won his home city of Lakewood, and showed surprising strength in Democratic precincts in neighboring Bellflower, Long Beach and Paramount.
Zeltner's showing in those areas more than offset the heavy support his Democratic opponent--Edward K. Waters--drew from the Democratic strongholds of Compton and Willowbrook, an unincorporated area north of Compton.
Democratic and Republican officials said Zeltner cobbled together a thin but clear 2,650-vote victory primarily because fewer registered voters than anticipated turned out, especially in overwhelmingly Democratic precincts in the Compton area, and Zeltner mounted a hard-hitting, last-minute attack on Waters' credentials as a candidate.
They also speculated that some liberal Democrats were turned off by Waters' opposition to abortion and to the reconfirmation of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird. They also theorized that other voters simply would not support a black candidate such as Waters, the 31-year-old son of fiery liberal Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).
Zeltner, 61, a Lakewood City Councilman and former sheriff's captain, is white. He outdistanced Waters, 36,309 votes to 33,659, with Peace and Freedom Party candidate Vikki Murdock trailing with 3,872.
Votes Never Materialized
As the votes were being counted on election night, the Waters campaign waited for a massive turnout from Compton to lift their candidate into office. But the turnout of registered voters in Compton was only 44.6%, compared to a countywide figure of 59.8% and a district total of 54.6%, according to the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office.
Willard Murray, who finished second to Waters in the Democratic primary last June, said his analysis showed Waters garnered 88.1% of the vote in heavily black precincts in Compton, unincorporated East Compton and Willowbrook, but Los Angles Mayor Tom Bradley captured nearly 96% of the vote in his campaign for governor in the same precincts.
"If Waters had gotten the same percentage in black areas as Bradley, he would have won," asserted Murray, who is an aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), and an organizer of election slate mailers.
Dymally said he believes that the Waters campaign "neglected Compton" because Waters had done well there in the primary. Further, he said that some liberal white Democrats "were not happy" with Waters because of his stands against Rose Bird and abortion and in favor of the death penalty.
Waters denied that he had ignored Compton voters, saying he staged a number of campaign events in the city. "I did not take the primary election for granted. I did not take my election for granted."
Yet he acknowledged that he may have been hurt by the low turnout, support siphoned away by Peace and Freedom candidate Murdock, an anti-black backlash on the part of a small number of voters and last-minute mailers from Zeltner alleging that Waters had not worked in the district.
But Waters called the message "a lie that rings in people's minds" and paints a picture "like you're an alien."
Waters, who has held a string of government jobs, was last employed as an investigator for a federally funded agency that helps relocate people displaced by the Century Freeway. Previously, he worked in the Compton area on a census awareness project and for a state weatherization program.
Shortly after moving to Compton last January, Waters declared his candidacy for the seat, which had been held for 14 years by Assemblyman Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower). He overpowered eight other candidates in the June primary.
Not only did Waters fail to turn out as many Compton-area supporters as his campaign staff had predicted, but Zeltner managed to win more than 9% of the vote there----well ahead of the 3% captured by Gov. George Deukmejian, according to Dymally's analysis of the contest.
Meantime, the Zeltner tally in Lakewood more than offset Waters' big margin in Compton. Zeltner captured 14,501 votes in Lakewood, while in Compton Waters piled up 13,845.
High Margins Rolled Up
Zeltner crushed Waters by margins of nearly 3-1 in Lakewood, better than 2-1 in Bellflower and East Long Beach and just narrowly in Paramount. Whereas voter turnout around Compton was less than 50%, turnout in Zeltner strongholds was above 50%, according to the registrar-recorder. Turnout in Lakewood reached 57.7%; Bellflower, 50.2%, and Long Beach 54.2%. In Paramount--where Waters lost but ran close to Zeltner--the turnout was only 44.8%.
Allan Hoffenblum, Zeltner's campaign consultant, said that Zeltner met his goal--to capture more than 54% of the Democratic voters and carry Lakewood by more than 70%.
"The fact that Compton didn't turn out was also a large factor" in the outcome, Hoffenblum said.