SACRAMENTO — The contest to unseat Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner (R-Lakewood) is heating up. Three well-connected Democrats say they intend to seek their party's nomination in the June primary election.
They are Willard Murray, a congressional aide who placed second in the 1986 primary; Leon Ralph, who left the state Assembly in 1976 for the ministry, and Les Robbins, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
"Now, it looks like a three-horse primary," said Robbins, 39, a longtime Long Beach resident.
The political season officially opens Feb. 1, when county election officials begin to accept formal candidate declarations. With that in mind, prospective candidates have stepped up their efforts to raise funds and solicit support in the capital and in the district. The heavily Democratic 54th District covers Bellflower, Compton, Lakewood, Paramount and parts of Willowbrook and East Long Beach.
No Republicans have emerged to challenge Zeltner, who said, "I don't expect any, but you never know."
In 1986, the district's veteran assemblyman, Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower), retired from the Legislature. The bruising primary that ensued was won by Edward K. Waters, son of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). Waters, who had moved into the district shortly before the contest, lost the general election to Zeltner.
Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), chairman of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, said he does not expect a replay of 1986, when the Assembly Democratic Caucus unified behind Waters in the primary.
"Certainly, the strong inclination is to stay out of all primaries," Isenberg said. "A number of individual members are futzing around" on behalf of candidates, he acknowledged. "We've never been able to prevent that."
Assemblymen Dave Elder (D-Long Beach) and Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) have said they support Robbins, and Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne) has endorsed Ralph.
But both would-be candidates must contend with Murray, 57, an aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), who moved into the district shortly before the 1986 primary. He has close ties to the powerful Westside political organization of Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman. In political circles he is best known for organizing slate-mailer endorsements sent to Democratic voters in South-Central Los Angeles.
Calls '86 a Plus
Murray said his second-place finish in 1986 should enhance his chances. Murray said he will address themes similar to his 1986 campaign, including support of funds for education, health and prison expansion.
He acknowledged that he has met with Ralph in an attempt to persuade the former lawmaker to leave the race.
Of their chat, Ralph said: "I tried to convince him, and he tried to convince me, and I left the meeting thinking Willard was probably going to run."
Ralph, 55, said he plans to launch his campaign early next month. Ralph started his ministry in the Sacramento area and expanded it to a second church in Hawthorne in 1986, he said. He recently moved to Paramount, which is in the 54th District.
Robbins, 39, said he is meeting with lawmakers and calculates that it will cost him about $150,000 to capture the primary. "I'm not in it to finish second, and I'm not going to," Robbins said.