With Willard H. Murray Jr.'s Democratic primary victory in the 54th Assembly District, the stage is set for what is expected to be one of the most fiercely fought legislative campaigns in the state this fall.
In Tuesday's voting, Murray defeated Leon Ralph, a former assemblyman trying to make a political comeback. Murray, an aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), polled 68% of the votes to 32% for Ralph in a campaign notable largely for its lack of excitement and issues.
However, Democrats, anxious to hold on to their 44-36 majority in the Assembly, and Republicans, equally anxious to protect incumbent Paul E. Zeltner, are now expected to pour as much as $1 million into campaign coffers in the southeast Los Angeles County district, which takes in Compton and Paramount, as well as Lakewood, Bellflower and parts of Long Beach.
The district could be crucial to Speaker Willie Brown's chances of holding onto his post. Brown, a San Francisco Democrat, faces not only Republican opposition to his continued leadership but also a challenge from within his own party. If elected, Murray is expected to support Brown, though he distanced himself publicly from Brown during the primary campaign.
With 65.3% of the registered voters in their camp, the Democrats and Murray would appear to have a lock on the 54th. The district, however, has a large blue-collar population, a group that has often shunned liberal Democrats in recent years.
Democrat Walter Mondale lost it, though narrowly, in the 1984 presidential election and Mayor Tom Bradley did the same in his 1986 gubernatorial campaign. "But six years ago," said Murray, "Bradley carried the district by 10,000 votes."
The biggest problem for Murray, however, is the district's Republican incumbent. Zeltner, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department captain and a former Lakewood city councilman, was elected to the Assembly in 1986 by a narrow margin after the Democrats emerged badly split from a bitter nine-way primary race.
In that contest, Murray placed second to Brown's handpicked candidate, Edward K. Waters, who was accused of moving into the 54th to run at the behest of his mother, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, and Brown.
With the 1986 experience uppermost in his mind Tuesday night, Murray said the most important campaign task facing him in the general election is to unite the Democrats.
"Two years ago," Murray said, "all of the Democratic candidates in the primary did not support the nominee." Murray said he expects Ralph and his supporters, who include the United Auto Workers, to support him.
Murray, 57, and Ralph, 55, are both black liberals who cut their political teeth in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Ralph served for nearly a decade in the Assembly before deciding in 1976 to retire and return to the ministry. Murray, a mathematician, worked in the aerospace industry before going into government and politics.
Zeltner, as well as some political pundits, question whether a liberal Democrat can win in the district.
"They may be blue collar," said Zeltner, "(and) they may be mostly Democratic but they're good conservatives."