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Decision '92 : VOTING IN THE VALLEY / AN ELECTION GUIDE : ASSEMBLY / 41st DISTRICT : Budget Is Big Issue in Friedman-Reed Race


If you listen closely to Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman and Republican challenger Christine Reed as they battle over an Assembly seat shared by the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, you would think the contest comes down to a fight between Gov. Pete Wilson and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

For the budget crisis that pitted the Republican governor against the Democratic leader and kept California issuing IOUs for two months is very much a part of the 41st Assembly District contest.

Friedman, a liberal Democrat, is an outspoken critic of Wilson's approach to managing California's troubled finances. He opposes the governor's initiative to reduce welfare benefits, calling it an extreme measure designed mainly to enhance the chief executive's power to cut state spending.

Reed, a moderate Republican and former Santa Monica city councilwoman, is a stalwart Wilson ally who favors the measure, Proposition 165, on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The partisan posturing takes on a preeminent role in this hard-fought Assembly contest because the two candidates agree on many basic issues.

Both Friedman and Reed strongly support abortion rights. Both consider themselves to be environmentalists. To varying degrees, they support public education and vow to be tough on crime.

Reed backed Friedman's recent bill to protect the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and supported his landmark legislation to outlaw job discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But politics is what truly divides the two candidates as they campaign in one of the districts statewide that will determine which party controls the Assembly.

As a result of reapportionment, Friedman, who had won election in 1986, 1988 and 1990 in a safe Democratic district, faces the prospect of competition for the first time in his political career.

The Encino Democrat was forced to move westward into a new district that spans the Santa Monica Mountains. An estimated 75% of the territory that runs from Santa Monica to Malibu and Encino to Agoura Hills is new to him.

When the district was created early in the year, Democrats held an advantage of about 9 percentage points over Republicans in voter registration. Given that Republicans say they tend to be more loyal to their party and more conscientious about voting, that would make it a tossup district.

But while Reed slugged it out in the spring with four conservative Republicans to win a heated primary, Friedman coasted to the nomination unopposed, and used the time to help organize Democratic voter registration efforts.

The registration push, coordinated with other Democratic campaigns and abortion-rights groups, was a success: Democrats now enjoy a 50% to 37% edge over the GOP in the district.

Despite the more comfortable margin, Friedman is taking nothing for granted in a year when anti-incumbent sentiment is running high. He is walking precincts, meeting voters and vowing to run a grass-roots campaign in addition to the traditional battle of the mailbox. "I'm taking this race seriously," he said.

Reed hopes to tap voter discontent. "It's time for a change," she said. "People are very angry at the Legislature, at Sacramento in general, at Washington in general."

Interviews with the candidates provided a look at what lies ahead. Reed depicted Friedman as too liberal for the district. She will try to brand him as a loyal follower of Speaker Brown despite Friedman's efforts during the budget fight to distance himself from him.

Friedman portrays Reed as an opponent of Santa Monica's tough rent control law, and a supporter of landlords and developers during her 15 years on the Santa Monica City Council.

As the campaign entered its final month, Friedman had a substantial lead in campaign funds. Contribution reports showed almost $237,000 in his campaign treasury at the end of September.

Reed had just $17,609 in campaign funds on hand at the end of last month, and thus enters the final weeks of the race at a disadvantage in her ability to communicate with voters.

In a face-to-face encounter earlier this month at a meeting of the Santa Monica Area Chamber of Commerce, there were no sharp exchanges between the two candidates, and both said the economy was the dominant issue in the race.

"The state of California is in big trouble," Friedman told the group. "Our economy is in desperate shape and we simply must take vigorous action to reverse the downward trend."

Reed said that "the most important thing we have to do for our state is to restore a healthy business environment, to restore jobs, to retain jobs, to listen to the business community and to clearly address the concerns that they have."

Friedman called for greater investment in California's public schools, saying that commitment is vital to the state's future economic health. "We must preserve and rebuild our public schools rather than starve them," he said.

The assemblyman said Wilson's proposal for reduced education spending was the defining issue in the budget fight.

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