There was less than a week to go in this year's session of the Legislature, freshman Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner said, when the Lakewood Republican bumped into Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) in the Assembly lounge.
"How much are you going to spend against me this time?" Zeltner said he asked Brown, the flamboyant broker of Assembly Democratic campaign funds.
Zeltner said Brown looked him straight in the eye and responded: "One point two million."
It is unlikely that Brown or his Assembly allies will end up spending even a quarter of that amount, according to Democratic sources and preliminary campaign finance reports. But it is a story Zeltner likes to tell anyway. As a Republican seeking reelection in a heavily Democratic district, Zeltner has seized upon Brown's interest in the campaign as an issue he hopes will roil Republicans and Democrats alike.
"The leadership right now is more interested in maintaining control of the power in Sacramento than they are in solving the problems of the people we are supposed to be serving," Zeltner charged at a recent campaign appearance this month in Bellflower.
During a debate in September with Willard H. Murray, his Democratic opponent, Zeltner struck a similar theme: "The only way we are going to force change upon (the leadership) is to send people like me back up there. People who are independent."
Brown, facing challenges from Republicans as well as dissident Democrats, has developed a strategy for keeping his job that hinges on ousting Zeltner and Republican Wayne Grisham of Norwalk and picking up a vacant seat held by the late Orange County Republican Richard Longshore.
"I've always operated on the theory we would . . . win three new seats," Brown said in a recent interview.
Zeltner, a retired sheriff's captain and former Lakewood city councilman, is counting on Brown's strategy backfiring in the predominantly working-class 54th District, which he characterizes as fiercely independent and unresponsive to meddling by "liberal Democrats" such as Brown.
"The people down here . . . may be registered Democrats, but they also have conservative ideas," Zeltner said in an interview. "They are hard-working white-collar and blue-collar types. They have pride in their community . . . and they don't like to have their candidates forced down their throats."
In a repeat of his 1986 effort, Zeltner is running a homespun campaign that downplays his GOP affiliation and focuses instead on his ties to the community and his experience in law enforcement.
Zeltner and an entourage of volunteers spend about three hours a day knocking on doors, handing out campaign literature and talking to anyone who will listen. Zeltner estimates he has about 200 volunteers--both Republicans and Democrats--working in the district, which includes Lakewood, Bellflower, Compton, Paramount, parts of eastern Long Beach and the unincorporated community of Willowbrook.
Zeltner, 63, a former commander of the Lakewood sheriff's station, talks mostly about crime, drugs and gang violence. Although he acknowledges that most of his legislative efforts to deal with the problems have failed, he tells people how hard he tried--and how hard Brown and the Democratic leadership worked against him.
Sponsor of Anti-Gang Bills
As an example, Zeltner cites a 7-hour public hearing he held in Compton last spring on gang violence that prompted him to introduce a package of gang-related bills in the Assembly. The legislation dealt with a wide range of issues, including providing tax incentives for businesses that employ gang members and giving local authorities the power to seize vehicles used in drive-by shootings.
None of the six bills passed the Assembly. Zeltner said some Democratic colleagues who supported his legislation told him "word came down" from the Democratic leadership that "they are not going to go."
Baxter Sinclair, a Compton businessman known for employing gang members, said "it made my stomach sick" when Zeltner's gang legislation died. Sinclair, who attended the Compton hearing, said he also spent several hours meeting separately with Zeltner and his staff to come up with the package of bills.
"It would have really helped solve some of the problems," said Sinclair, who supported Zeltner's opponent in 1986 but is backing Zeltner this time.
Zeltner managed to get 27 of his 61 bills passed into law during his 2-year term. Some of the bills dealt with local issues, such as one that passed last year extending state assistance for minority- and women-operated businesses seeking contracts on the Century Freeway project. He was less successful with a bill designed to assist the financially strapped Paramount Adult School. That bill died this summer in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.