State Democratic and Republican leaders have turned Southeast Los Angeles County into one of California's most heated and expensive political battlegrounds, as they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to win one Senate and two Assembly seats in Tuesday's election.
Not only are both parties striving to strengthen their legislative ranks in anticipation of the 1990 reapportionment, but the leaders of both Democratic-controlled houses are trying to consolidate their power.
As a result, state party dollars have found their way to candidates in the 63rd and 54th Assembly and 33rd Senate District races like bees to blossoms.
The Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 43 to 35 in the Assembly, have set their sights on the 63rd District seat held by Norwalk Republican Wayne Grisham, a two-term assemblyman and former congressman judged vulnerable in light of his upset loss in last year's special election to fill the 33rd Senate seat.
Grisham, 65, faces well-financed Democratic challenger Robert D. Epple, a 39-year-old attorney and member of the Cerritos College board of trustees. Both candidates said last week they consider the race to be very close.
The Grisham campaign, backed by Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan and other state Republican leaders, had raised $539,133 as of last week, according to campaign disclosure statements. The Epple campaign, which has received strong backing from top lieutenants of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), raised $719,227.
A lot of that money has been spent on mailers that question Grisham's voting record and dedication, and attack Epple's integrity and ties to Brown.
Epple has painted Grisham as an ineffective, absentee legislator. From December, 1986, to the end of September, 1988, Grisham missed 24% of the committee votes, according to Legi-Tech, a computerized information service. That ranks him among the 10 most absent Assembly members for committee votes. In response, Grisham said that once a bill got to the floor, he voted 97% of the time, a rate confirmed by Legi-Tech. "My voting record is 97% on the floor and 94% overall," Grisham said last week. "It's physically impossible to make all committee meetings."
Challenge to Brown
Grisham has attacked Epple as a puppet of Brown, who needs to pick up at least three more supporters in next week's election to give him the 41 votes necessary to hold on to the speakership. During most of 1988, Brown's leadership has been challenged by five rebel Assembly Democrats known as the "Gang of Five."
Epple acknowledges he has received ample support from Brown forces, but he bristles at the suggestion that he would be a stooge for the embattled speaker. "I'm going to be voting for my district," Epple said. "I believe that I can go up there and represent this district well and still be a Democrat."
The 63rd District includes Artesia, Cerritos, Downey, Hawaiian Gardens, Santa Fe Springs, almost all of Norwalk, and parts of Lakewood, southern and eastern Whittier, and Long Beach. Registration is 57% Democratic and 35.5% Republican, but the mostly blue-collar district has conservative leanings and numerous crossover votes.
State party leaders also have focused heavily on the Assembly's 54th District race, where GOP incumbent Paul E. Zeltner is being challenged by Democrat Willard Murray, a veteran political consultant and former aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton). Spending in the contest is well on its way to $1 million.
The 54th, which runs southeast from the Willowbrook area and Compton to take in Paramount, Lakewood, Bellflower and a slice of northeast Long Beach, is the most heavily Democratic district in the state represented by a Republican. But even though 65% of the registered voters are Democrats, Murray has an uphill fight.
Zeltner, 63, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's captain, is a former Lakewood councilman whose roots in the district go back 40 years. During his two years in the Assembly, he has made himself highly visible throughout the district, even in heavily Democratic Compton.
Local businessmen there have contributed to his campaign. And local Democratic officials, while supporting Murray, go out of their way to point out that they appreciate Zeltner's visibility in their community and his willingness to tackle crime and unemployment problems.
Murray, on the other hand, is being called a carpetbagger. In a hard-hitting mailer that went out to voters several weeks ago, Zeltner said that Murray has owned a home for years in Baldwin Hills, which is not in the 54th District. The Baldwin Hills address is on Murray's driver's license. His voting address is an apartment in Paramount.
Accused of Lying
Zeltner's mailer also accused Murray of lying about having a degree from UCLA. University officials say Murray only attended the university for a semester.