At the height of his political power, Assemblyman Leon D. Ralph (D-Los Angeles) abandoned the Legislature for the ministry.
After announcing his decision to quit the Assembly in 1976, the 10-year veteran of the Legislature declared: "I couldn't keep doing both. I'd be short-changing either the Lord or my constituents."
But Ralph said in a recent interview that he plans to move to Paramount and may attempt a political comeback by entering next June's primary for the Democratic nomination in the 54th Assembly District.
Ralph, once the powerful chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee, says that he could now juggle the demands of his church and his constituents. As he put it: "I'm at a different place in my ministry. I had a lot to learn and I've applied myself to that."
Ralph is among a handful of potential challengers to Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner (R-Lakewood), who last November upset the odds-makers and captured the heavily Democratic district. In the neighboring 63rd Assembly District, two former Democratic candidates are mounting challenges to Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk). Cerritos City Councilwoman Diana Needham said she, too, is considering whether to run in the Democratic primary.
Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), chairman of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, described the two Assembly seats as "among the top five districts" Democrats expect to target in 1988. But unlike past elections, Isenberg said he doubts the Assembly leadership will publicly endorse candidates in primary elections.
Meantime, in the GOP primary for the 33rd Senate District, former Hawaiian Gardens Councilwoman Margaret Vineyard has announced her candidacy, and Cerritos City Councilman Don Knabe said he is leaning toward challenging Sen. Cecil N. Green (D-Norwalk).
Green, Grisham and Zeltner all plan to seek reelection and are preparing for costly races. Indeed, last spring Grisham and Green received a total of nearly $3 million to wage their campaigns.
To raise such substantial sums, legislative campaigns have stretched into yearlong marathons. Earlier this month, Zeltner staged a Lakewood fund-raiser to erase his $11,000 campaign debt; Green plans a major event in Orange County next month, and Peter Ohanesian, a Democrat who seeks to challenge Grisham, staged a $150-a-person fund-raiser.
Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime GOP campaign strategist who oversaw Zeltner's campaign in 1986, predicted: "The (financial) resources going into that part of the county will be tremendous."
The following is the early line on the three campaigns, two months before filing opens.
The 54th Assembly District:
Democrats view Zeltner, a former Lakewood city councilman and sheriff's captain, as merely a temporary occupant of the seat because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of better than 2-1. In 1986, he defeated Edward K. Waters, son of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). With her help, Waters raised $820,000 in contributions compared to Zeltner's $170,000.
Zeltner cracked that the district "is called crucial to the Democrats . . . because I happen to have it." Assembly Democrats are expected to put Zeltner high on their list of Republicans to defeat, prompting the rookie lawmaker to be highly visible in the district, especially in Compton. "I'm not taking anything for granted," he acknowledged.
On the Democratic side, former Assemblyman Ralph said he is "seriously considering" running for the seat because "it's a heavily Democratic district and people have expressed some concern about the quality of representation they currently have."
Some politicians privately speculate that the entry into the campaign of Ralph, with his long list of political credentials, would dissuade others from getting into the race, lessening the chance of a rerun of the bitter, nine-candidate 1986 primary.
In his political heyday, Ralph was a champion of lottery and dog racing bills. He also emerged as one of the most influential blacks in state government. But in 1976, Ralph unexpectedly announced he would not seek reelection and would go into the ministry.
Shortly after leaving office, Ralph held a testimonial dinner attended by lobbyists, lawmakers and other state officials who paid $125 a plate to help their friend raise $50,000 to buy a church in the Sacramento suburb of North Highlands. He renamed it the Interdenominational Church of God and opened a branch of the church in Hawthorne in July, 1986. Ralph, who in recent years also has been registered as a capital lobbyist, moved to Inglewood last year and said he plans to settle in Paramount in the 54th District.
Ralph said that he once represented parts of Compton and Willowbrook, which are in the 54th District. He declared that "a good, strong black candidate has an excellent chance of winning."