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Gardena Senator, 81, Hints at a Run for the 'Big League' : Politics: Ralph C. Dills says reapportionment could create a congressional seat for him. Some believe such a scenario is possible.

March 24, 1991|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — At first blush, it sounds incongruous: Ralph C. Dills, a freshman at an age when most politicians have long since retired.

After more than a half-century in state politics, could the 81-year-old Democratic state senator from Gardena possibly find happiness as a back-bencher in the U.S. House of Representatives?

First elected to the state Legislature in 1938, Dills insists that under certain conditions, he might find himself seeking a House seat next year.

"I would like to wind up a lifetime of public life in the big league" of politics, said Dills, whose 30th Senate district includes Gardena, Carson, Harbor City, Wilmington, North Long Beach, Lynwood, Paramount and part of Compton.

Whether Dills follows through with a congressional campaign hinges on the complicated, once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative lines.

The scenario that could cause Dills to catch Potomac Fever goes like this:

Under reapportionment, new state Senate districts must have a population of 744,000. But Senate officials estimate that Dills' existing district is nearly 63,000 below that magic number. Likewise, neighboring districts need to add people.

Consequently, Dills said, it is likely that a district such as his in the middle of Los Angeles County could be wiped out or combined with another seat. But the same map makers who might abolish his Senate district could also breathe new life into Dills' political career.

California's growing population entitles it to seven new congressional seats. Most of those new districts are expected to be drawn in Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego counties, which experienced the biggest gains in population.

Still, Dills maintains that a new congressional district could be tailored to fit him. Dills, who said he would not run against an incumbent, theorizes that a new congressional seat could be stitched together from pieces of surrounding districts now represented by Reps. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), Glenn Anderson (D-San Pedro) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach).

None of those congressmen could be reached for comment.

Other lawmakers and political consultants initially chuckled about the possibility of an octogenarian going to Congress. One suggested that Dills is merely having a bit of fun musing about a new career.

But they quickly added that they would not underestimate his ability to get what he wants in the behind-the-scenes horse-trading that traditionally leads to passage of reapportionment legislation.

A colorful figure, known for playing the saxophone with his Dills' Derby Band, the veteran lawmaker continues to wield clout in the Capitol. Among other things, he presides over the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which handles liquor, gambling and horse-racing legislation.

Dills' political career began in the mid-1930s when he was a follower of author Upton Sinclair, the 1934 Democratic gubernatorial nominee whose unsuccessful campaign ran under the slogan "End Poverty in California."

Dills served in the Assembly a decade before resigning in 1949 to become a judge in the Compton area. After 17 years on the bench, Dills won his Senate seat. He was overwhelmingly reelected to a sixth term last November.

Dills' lengthy experience and his continuing popularity on his home turf means he can never be counted out of any political picture, one source said. "Ralph Dills will run or hold public office until the day he's buried," said the source, a longtime Los Angeles area political consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The consultant maintained that in a congressional campaign, Dills could even turn his age to an advantage. "The older he is, the more fascination there is with him" among the electorate, the consultant says.

The political consultant added that the biggest hurdle facing Dills in a congressional race would be the prospect of a new seat attracting other well-known candidates, forcing Dills to campaign much harder than he has in recent years.

But Dills said he is physically fit for a tough campaign, as well as for service in Congress.

According to the House historian's office, the oldest current member of the House is Rep. Sidney R. Yates (R-Illinois). He is about six months older than Dills. The historian's office does not keep records on the oldest freshmen entering Congress.

If nothing else, Dills is signaling he wants to be a force in reapportionment. "If I am going to be politically ostracized at this tender age," Dills chortled, "I might want a home somewhere, and the federal Congress is not that bad."

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