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Zelman Hopes His 'Mistake' Is Forgiven : Primary: Candidate thinks he won't be judged on 1973 pot charge. But Democrats fear the 'Ginsburg factor.'

March 11, 1990|Joe Scott | Joe Scott is a Los Angeles political journalist

The Democratic primary for state insurance commissioner kicked into high gear last week. Candidate Walter Zelman, former Common Cause executive director, admitted a previous drug conviction. And Ralph Nader, long shy about whom he liked in the race, was talking about whom he definitely disliked.

Zelman pleaded guilty to marijuana possession in 1973, when he was a professor at Cal State Northridge. The conviction was later expunged from his record. Regretful of his "mistake," Zelman is confident that voters will forgive him when they weigh his 13-year record of fighting for the public interest as Common Cause director.

Many Democratic insiders had warned Zelman that his drug conviction might prove troubling if disclosed. Although none of them believe that it should be a campaign issue, they concede it probably will be. Many recalled the fate of Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg in 1987. After disclosures that he had smoked marijuana while a student teacher at Harvard Law School, Ginsburg withdrew his nomination.

Both pollsters Mervin Field--"There's no up side"--and I.A. (Bud) Lewis of the Los Angeles Times--"It's more of a minus"--think Zelman's drug past will dog his candidacy, especially if he advances to the general election.

Meanwhile, Nader, whose support of Proposition 103 was largely responsible for its narrow victory, called state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) "Impostor No. 1" because of his "disturbing record" on insurance reform. He urged Garamendi to quit the race.

When asked about Zelman, who in his announcement of candidacy said he wanted to be the "Ralph Nader of insurance," Nader called him "Impostor No. 2." "Let Zelman stand on his own two feet," chided the consumer advocate. "(He) can't justify his past positions." Zelman initially opposed Proposition 103.

Nader hinted that his list of consumer-advocate impostors will grow. He's taking a "look" at former television commentator Bill Press.

When Nader completes his process of elimination, the only candidate likely to remain will be Board of Equalization President Conway Collis.

Two years ago at the state Republican convention in Santa Clara, Gov. George Deukmejian startled delegates when he read from a letter by Chris Edwards Unruh, widow of Democratic Treasurer Jesse M. Unruh. She unabashedly endorsed the governor's candidate--then-Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach)--to succeed her late husband.

In the eyes of still-bitter Unruh partisans, Chris Unruh got her reward last month: she was named special-projects liaison to the Hollywood-based California Film Commission, with an annual salary of $46,000. She was appointed by commission director Lisa Rawlins, a longtime Deukmejian aide, and approved by the governor's office. Deukmejian aides deny any connection between the Lungren endorsement and the commission job.

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