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Challenger Marmillion Embarks on Uphill Fight Against Beilenson

May 01, 1988|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

At first glance, Val Marmillion seems an unlikely Los Angeles congressional candidate. The liberal businessman won his political spurs as a man who runs campaigns rather than runs in them, and he did that in Louisiana rather than California.

But, Marmillion says, he decided to challenge veteran Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson in the June 7 Democratic primary because he is disheartened by the direction of the party and determined to be a voice for the disenfranchised. He characterizes Beilenson as part of the problem.

"Our party is not the party that I remember," Marmillion told a group of disabled activists in Tarzana recently. "It's not the party that offers hope and vision. It's a party that tries to keep the scraps on the table."

Marmillion, 38, is running uphill: He is a political unknown in a sprawling district of 545,000 residents that stretches from West Hollywood to Malibu and across the Santa Monica Mountains to the western San Fernando Valley. He agrees with his entrenched opponent on many issues, forcing him to emphasize "nuances" of differences and the need for more outspoken leadership.

But the West Hollywood resident vows that his effort to build an activist, issue-oriented coalition will not end this spring, and some supporters suggest he is laying the groundwork for a more viable challenge in 1990. Even Marmillion told the disabled activists: "It's going to take a couple of campaigns before people realize we're for real."

He also is going against the current of a shrinking role for the federal government advocated by Ronald Reagan. His campaign is courting the elderly, feminists, gays, veterans, disabled, labor and other interest groups with promises that he will champion their agendas--despite a 1988 budget deficit projected at $146.7 billion.

"Most of the budget-trimming has been in programs that are directed to people," said Marmillion. "We need controls on military and foreign spending."

Finally, his candidacy seeks to make history: If he upsets Beilenson and wins the general election in the moderately Democratic 23rd District, Marmillion would be the first openly gay candidate elected to a first term in Congress. Two members, Reps. Barney Frank and Gerry E. Studds, both Massachusetts Democrats, came out of the closet after they were in office.

"Val Marmillion is a lot of things, and one of them in his profile is gay, but he's also a businessman; he's also someone who has served time in Washington; he's also someone who has several interests in the community," Marmillion said in the soft Southern drawl that reflects his upbringing in Mississippi and Louisiana.

He maintains that his homosexuality will not be a factor with voters. It has been, however, with supporters. His two largest contributions--totaling $8,000 of the $45,000 he has raised--have come from gay rights groups, even though Beilenson has consistently supported their positions. And one of Marmillion's priorities is increasing spending to fight acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which is especially devastating to the homosexual community.

Skills Highly Regarded

Personable and articulate, Marmillion has won accolades in politics, government and business. Associates describe the newcomer to Los Angeles politics as professional, savvy and demanding. His tactical skills are highly regarded in Louisiana, where he directed Democrat John B. Breaux's upset victory for the U.S. Senate in 1986.

"Val brought a new era of professionalism to the campaign manager in Louisiana," Louisiana political journalist John Macinnis.

Marmillion had served on Breaux's House staff for seven years, the last four as his top aide. An ex-colleague recalled: "He was a top-of-the-line administrative assistant. He was very smart, very good on issues." After working in the 1980 Carter campaign, Marmillion moved to Los Angeles as public relations director for Atlantic Richfield. Two years later, he co-founded Hunt/Marmillion/Associates to handle marketing, public affairs and public relations.

Through Hunt/Marmillion, which also had offices in Washington and New Orleans, Marmillion ran Breaux's 1986 campaign and Democrat Jim Brown's unsuccessful 1987 gubernatorial bid in Louisiana. Brown, former Louisiana secretary of state, calls Marmillion "very creative and innovative."

Marmillion-guided campaigns were marked by positive issue-oriented appeals, a disciplined focus on a consistent message and well-oiled organizations, according to Macinnis and others. Marmillion's own campaign coordinator is Norma Jane Sabiston, a longtime friend who worked for Hunt/Marmillion in New Orleans and was involved in the Breaux and Brown races.

Hunt/Marmillion, which employed 14 people and had 1987 revenue of $1 million, was sold in March to Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency. Marmillion, now a senior vice president, took a leave of absence, effective March 1, to campaign nearly full time.

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