Terry Lee Perkins, Democratic challenger in the 52nd Assembly District, is in a situation that most politicians would relish.
Her opponent, incumbent Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), is one of five state lawmakers targeted in an FBI investigation into allegations of political corruption. The popular 3-term assemblyman refuses to speak publicly about the inquiry and is generally running a low-profile campaign.
But Perkins, an elementary school teacher from Walnut, has been reluctant to make an issue of the FBI investigation, frustrating some local Democrats who believe she is passing up her best shot at upsetting Hill in the Nov. 8 election.
"I don't like campaigns like the ones that are going on now that are attacking," said Perkins, who is running for office for the first time. "I think you should be telling people what you believe in and what you think is right, instead of just slandering the other person."
Hill is one of the targets of an FBI sting operation aimed at uncovering extortion and bribery at the state Capitol. No charges have been filed, and sources said indictments will probably not be returned before Nov. 8.
The investigation involved federal agents creating fake companies, sponsoring bills and paying money to lawmakers. Hill is suspected of receiving a $2,500 honorarium from an agent posing as a businessman, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
Perkins' campaign manager, Milton S. Kagan, is already anticipating that charges will be filed against Hill.
"We expect that there's a good possibility that when the indictment comes down there will be a resignation in the district," Kagan said. "At that time, we think we'll have a real good shot at it (Hill's seat)."
Under state law, however, a legislator could continue to hold office until convicted.
The state Democratic Party apparently also views an indictment as pivotal. At the end of August, Perkins and Kagan were summoned to Sacramento by Sandy Polka of Ross Consultants, a Sacramento political consulting firm with close ties to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
"If the indictment came down (before the election), they wanted to be involved in the campaign, and if it didn't they told me I couldn't win," Perkins said.
Kagan is disgusted that Ross Consultants failed to follow through on a promise to reimburse Perkins for $700 in plane fares for the Sacramento trip.
"They refuse to return my phone calls," Kagan said. "That $700 could have bought 500 yard signs."
Polka said she had no comment on the Hill-Perkins race.
Comment on Tickets Refused
When asked about the plane tickets, Polka said, "I don't want to talk about it" and referred further questions to company president Richard Ross, who did not return telephone calls.
Perkins sometimes mentions the FBI investigation when campaigning and discusses the matter if asked. But she refuses to put out a mailer linking Hill with political corruption.
"It's different if we're talking about it than putting it in a hit piece," Perkins said.
Some Democrats, such as Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon of Alhambra, whose 59th district includes part of Whittier, praised Perkins' strategy: "Hit campaigns are the way the game is played as long as people continue to play that way. It's refreshing to have somebody who, regardless of the consequences, isn't willing to stoop to that level."
Perkins is concentrating on such issues as education reform, cleaning up the environment and statewide health insurance. She has raised about $10,000, which she is mostly spending on campaign signs and mailers.
A teacher for 22 years, Perkins, 45, strongly backs Proposition 98, the ballot measure that promises consistent funding for public schools and community colleges, smaller class sizes and higher pay for teachers.
Perkins said she has worked as a volunteer in Democratic campaigns for 20 years and last year was a paid member of the campaign of state Sen. Cecil N. Green (D-Norwalk). She is also active in the California Teachers Assn. and has been chairwoman of the group's Southeast Los Angeles County political action committee. Perkins' largest campaign contribution was $500, from the CTA.
Hill has amassed a campaign chest of about $275,000, including donations from land developers, but he thus far has waged a low-visibility campaign, keeping his campaign office open only part-time, posting campaign signs and sending out mailers.
His largest campaign contributions are $5,000 from the Sunrise Co., the developers of Palm Desert; $5,000 from the Irvine Co. and $4,000 from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee.
Hill has avoided candidate forums, limiting his appearances to friendly community events such as parades, golf tournaments and Lion's Club meetings. He has refused to speak to the news media since being implicated in the FBI investigation earlier this year.