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ELECTIONS 34TH SENATE DISTRICT : Scrappy Lawmaker Challenged by GOP Maverick : Democrats: Veteran legislator Ruben Ayala's style has won him high marks in Sacramento, where he has won funding for a variety of projects in his district.


SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Ruben S. Ayala is best known around the Capitol for championing a lost cause: providing more water to Southern California.

For more than a decade, the Chino Democrat has promoted major state water projects, such as the Peripheral Canal to pump high-quality Northern California water to the south. The canal plan was defeated by state voters in 1982, and Ayala has been thwarted from reviving it or winning approval of smaller-scale proposals by unyielding opposition from Northern California lawmakers.

Ayala's persistence in pushing such projects has drawn fire from environmentalists. Thomas Graff, senior counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, described Ayala as someone who has "almost never met a water project he didn't like."

But Graff also admitted a grudging admiration for the veteran lawmaker, who is facing a stiff reelection challenge from Assemblyman Charles Bader (R-Pomona).

Graff said that even though he disagrees with Ayala about 75% of the time, he nonetheless holds a "soft spot" for the senator "because he's a straight-shooter."

Indeed, Ayala's scrappy style wins him high marks in the Capitol. While many lawmakers increasingly hide behind aides when confronting tough issues, Ayala is known for his willingness to face his critics head-on. He also refuses to be taken for granted.

One veteran lobbyist said that in contrast to lawmakers who take their cues on issues from legislative leaders or special interest groups, "You have to go in and see (Ayala) and talk to him and explain the deal and how it affects his area."

After 16 years in the upper chamber, Ayala is an entrenched member of the Senate establishment: chairman of the Agriculture and Water Resources Committee; an ally of Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti; a lawmaker who has clout to get public works projects built for his booming 34th District, which encompasses Pomona in Los Angeles County and most of western San Bernardino County.

Besides water issues, Ayala is not known for his sponsorship of big-ticket legislation. Unlike many of his colleagues, he has kept his focus on his district, winning funds for a variety of pet projects--libraries, community centers and parks. He flies home just about every weekend and, according to one former staffer, tries to keep in tune with the district by sifting through constituent mail.

One of Ayala's few moments in the statewide limelight involved the highly charged 1979 battle over Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s appointment of actress Jane Fonda to the state Arts Council. Ayala, suggesting that the actress had provided "aid and comfort" to the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, made the motion to reject her appointment. It passed overwhelmingly.

With less controversy, Ayala has been a longtime champion of the California Conservation Corps, carrying legislation in 1980 to extend the life of the agency initially set up to hire unemployed youth to protect the environment.

His critics fault Ayala for failing to grasp details of legislation. One lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, said Ayala listens, asks questions and is reasonably attentive, but "doesn't quite get 100% of the picture" on many issues.

Ayala, 68, dismisses such criticism as campaign rhetoric by those seeking to exploit the age gap between him and the 50-year-old Bader.

One legislative staffer said that in committee--where the nuts and bolts of lawmaking takes place--Ayala is poorly prepared and may be handicapped by a loss of hearing.

Ayala acknowledged suffering a hearing problem in his right ear, which occurred while he was in the Marine Corps. But he maintained that even though he does not wear a hearing aid, he remains quite capable of hearing "what's going on."

Politically, Ayala is considered a moderate-to-conservative Democrat. One former Senate staffer described Ayala as "not as liberal as most Democrats and not as conservative as most Republicans" in the Senate.

A review of five special-interest groups that rate legislators shows Ayala drawing high marks from traditional Democratic constituencies. For instance, the political arm of the California AFL-CIO reported that in 1989 he voted a pro-labor position 82% of the time. And the California Teachers Assn. gave him an "A" for his record on education issues.

Ayala drew mixed reviews from more conservative groups. The California Chamber of Commerce said Ayala voted with their interests 41% of the time in 1990.

But the National Rifle Assn. reported that he failed to side with the gun group on any issue. The NRA has endorsed Bader and has helped mount an independent campaign on his behalf.

Despite Ayala's stand on water issues, the League of Conservation Voters, the political arm of the environmental movement, said that he sided with them in the 1990 legislative session on 79% of their key floor votes.

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