A year before the 1988 general election, campaign strategists say that three Southeast Los Angeles County races are shaping into the state's most crucial legislative contests.
Robert Naylor, chairman of the state Republican Party, described the three races as "the top battleground of the state for legislative gains or losses for either party . . . We'll spare no effort. . . ."
At stake will be the 33rd Senate District, won in May in a high-spending special election by Cecil N. Green (D-Norwalk); the 63rd Assembly District, held since 1984 by Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk), who lost the Senate contest to Green, and the heavily Democratic 54th Assembly District, which was captured in an upset last year by Paul E. Zeltner (R-Lakewood).
In the Assembly, Democrats now hold a 44-36 edge. In the Senate, Democrats have a 24-15 margin, with one seat occupied by an independent.
Seats Regarded as Pivotal
Republicans regard the three Southeast seats as pivotal to their goal of taking control of the Legislature and, in turn, the highly partisan, once-a-decade process of re-drawing district lines after the 1990 election.
For Democrats, Green's victory gave them renewed hope of blocking further GOP electoral inroads, especially among traditional working-class constituencies that began crossing over to the GOP column in the 1970s. Zeltner's seat went into the Republican column last year and Grisham took his in 1984, succeeding Democrat Bruce Young, who retired.
Like detectives searching for clues to solve a mystery, campaign consultants are puzzling over demographic data, voter registration figures and poll results to determine the makeup of the local electorate.
So far, the facts and figures reflect an area of bedroom communities distinguished by stable populations of blue-collar workers who own their homes. Their income levels are above the norm in Los Angeles County, but education levels are slightly below the county median. Democrats still outnumber Republicans and remain strong in mostly black Compton and in Latino areas around Norwalk. But white voters, including Democrats, are friendly to conservative candidates.
"We have a lot of people who are Democrats by registration, but in the last few years have felt disaffected and voted Republican," said Harvey Englander, an Orange County-based political strategist who has handled Democratic campaigns in the Southeast area.
In contrast, GOP loyalists tend to be anyone registered as a Republican. "They do not defect unless you have a complete bozo" running as a candidate, said Bruce E. Cain, a Caltech political science professor who has studied voting trends.
Cain views the area "as a weather vane for what's happening to the Democratic Party in the state. If it has high defection rates and registration continues to drop, that suggests an important constituency may be switching to Republican or independent."
The major cities that make up the Southeast political battlefield are Bellflower, Cerritos, Compton, Downey, Lakewood, Norwalk and the eastern edge of Long Beach.
Cain noted that statewide, the most solid Democratic areas are heavily minority communities like Compton. Other Democratic strongholds are found in liberal and Jewish precincts on the Westside of Los Angeles and counties ringing San Francisco Bay where environmental concerns are strong.
Statewide, he said, the key to elections is held by swing voters, especially Democrats in rural areas like the San Joaquin Valley and suburban cities like those in Southeast Los Angeles County. Cain said these voters remain registered Democrats out of their experiences forged in the Depression or the post-World War II era or because of lingering attachments to labor unions. However, he said, they are cautious about supporting Democrats who appear too sympathetic to feminist causes or are too liberal on such social issues as welfare funding.
GOP Registration Climbs
As younger families and white-collar workers have moved into the southeast corner of the county, Democratic registration has declined and Republican numbers have edged upward.
In 1982, in the Los Angeles County portion of the 33rd Senate District, which makes up about two-thirds of the district, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 59.7% to 32.7%. By March, the secretary of state's office reported that the advantage had shrunk to 53.7% Democratic and 38.3% Republican. That ratio is considered only marginally Democratic because GOP voter turnout is historically higher.
During the same period, Democratic majorities in the two Assembly districts also slipped by several percentage points. In the 63rd Assembly District, Democrats now outnumber Republicans 57.7% to 34.8%, and in the 54th Assembly District, 65.3% to 27%.