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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 52 : GOP Primary Remains Up for Grabs : Even Frank Hill, who gave up the seat when he won election to the state Senate, says a win by any of four or five candidates would not surprise him.


The election to choose a successor to Frank Hill in the 52nd Assembly District has turned into a wide-open race in which eight Republican candidates are scrambling for a winning strategy.

Two candidates call themselves the most conservative. One candidate is running as an environmentalist. Another has seized the ethics issue by refusing campaign contributions. And one is pitching an appeal to Asians and women.

The June 5 primary has even featured a couple of candidates challenging their foes to take drug and AIDS tests.

Hill, a Whittier Republican who gave up the Assembly seat in March when he won election to the state Senate, said the contest is so even that he would not be surprised by a win by any of four or five of the candidates. Hill said he told candidates when the campaign began that if anyone could pull away from the field, he would consider offering his help "to go the last 20 yards."

But, Hill said, no one has emerged as a clear leader, so he will not endorse.

Political experts estimate that as few as 12,000 votes will be enough to win a Republican primary split so many ways. There are 78,000 registered Republicans.

The district stretches from La Mirada and Whittier across the Puente Hills to include Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Diamond Bar, Walnut and part of West Covina. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 48% to 43%, making the Republican nominee a favorite to win the seat in November.

The only Democrat on the ballot, Diamond Bar marketing consultant Gary Neely, is preparing a vigorous campaign.

When the contest began, Wayne Grisham, who has served in Congress and the Assembly, was acknowledged as the most widely known candidate. But he entered the race carrying the stigma of losses in his last two election tries. Never regarded as an aggressive campaigner, Grisham has been even more subdued this time, running such a low-key campaign that opponents say he has lost his early advantage.

Kenneth R. Manning, a member of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board, has the most endorsements from party leaders, and some opponents see him as the candidate to beat.

Diamond Bar Councilman Paul Horcher is the only other current elected officeholder in the race. Others mounting strong efforts are Wil Baca, a civil engineer and businessman known for his work on environmental issues; Tony Russo, a young political aide who has helped run election campaigns for Hill and Grisham, and Phil Mautino, who has been active in civic affairs in the Republican stronghold of Whittier.

Less visible campaigns are being run by Jim Baker, a board member of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., who has declined campaign contributions, and Jack Dortignac, a West Covina construction foreman making his first bid for public office.

In a move that other candidates called silly, Russo challenged all candidates a few weeks ago to take drug tests. He released the results of his own tests, which declared that the only medications he had taken in the previous 30 days were "vitamins, coffee and diet soda" and that he was drug-free.

Russo said Grisham was the only candidate who accepted the challenge by taking a drug test. Horcher has said he would take the test if Russo would pay for it, but Russo has not complied.

In response to Russo's challenge, Manning said that perhaps candidates should also take tests to screen for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Manning said he made the remark because candidates are out in the community "shaking hands and kissing babies."

Horcher said that Manning's remark was a "very cruel and insensitive thing to say" and that it reflected a lack of compassion for people with AIDS and a lack of knowledge about the disease.

Russo has also assailed Manning for his comments. Russo said drug tests are relevant because drug use can impair job performance, but he fails to see how a test for AIDS would have any significance.

In trying to break out of the pack, each candidate has targeted his appeal in a way that invites labels.

Baca, 49, is clearly the environmentalist. He has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters and Californians Against Waste. In the past, Baca has used his tenacity and engineering expertise to lead fights against expansion of the Puente Hills landfill and construction of trash incinerators and to promote recycling statewide.

He grew up in New Mexico and came to California in 1962 with a new bachelor's degree in engineering. Baca worked for several aerospace companies before starting his own consulting business. Although he continues to do engineering work, much of his income today comes from marketing products from his family's chili business in New Mexico.

Opponents have labeled Baca a single-issue candidate whose emphasis on the environment is too extreme for most Republicans. Manning said Baca is "without a doubt the most fanatic environmentalist. He is willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the environment."

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