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Democrats Claim GOP Turf in Assembly : A bitter campaign ends with Debra L. Bowen's lopsided victory over Brad Parton. Farther south, a little-known math teacher stuns Gerald N. Felando.


Two upset victories in the state Assembly have turned the tables on South Bay Republicans, shifting what once was a GOP stronghold to a Democratic one.

Political newcomer Debra L. Bowen swept to a stunning landslide victory over Republican Brad Parton, ending a brutal battle for the new 53rd Assembly District that hugs the coast from Venice to the edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Democrat Bowen rolled up a 22,731-vote victory margin, capturing 54.6% of the vote to Parton's 40.7%.

The area's southernmost Assembly district, which encompasses all of the peninsula and San Pedro, also provided a surprise as veteran Republican Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando was unseated by a little-known math teacher making her first bid for public office.

Betty Karnette, a Long Beach resident who teaches at South Gate Middle School, took on 14-year veteran Felando in a 54th District race the Democratic Party virtually had conceded.

Karnette attributed her success to anti-incumbent sentiment, an overconfident opponent, new voter support for women candidates and old-fashioned grass-roots effort.

"I think my success can be (attributed to) the tenor of the times," Karnette said early Wednesday morning. "People wanted change. No incumbent can rest easy."

But one South Bay incumbent, Assemblyman Curtis Tucker Jr. (D-Inglewood), had a uniquely easy time of it Tuesday. With no Republican challenger and only Libertarian candidate Clark W. Hanley opposing him, Tucker coasted to victory in the 51st District, which includes most of Inglewood and Hawthorne, as well as part of Lawndale.

Carson Councilwoman Juanita M. McDonald also breezed to victory over her sole opponent, Libertarian Shannon Anderson, to win her first term in the 55th District, which includes Carson, Wilmington and part of Harbor Gateway. McDonald trounced two veteran assemblymen to win a hard-fought Democratic primary in June.

But it was the sweeping victory of Bowen over Parton that most startled South Bay political watchers. It capped a bitter duel in the mails between two candidates who berated each other over everything from religion and abortion to taxes and support for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

The race for the open Assembly seat was easily the most vicious legislative contest in the South Bay this fall.

Even considering the Democratic tide throughout the state, Bowen's achievement was impressive. In her first foray into politics, she managed to steal for the Democrats what had been written off last summer as a safe Republican seat--and it wasn't even close.

Throughout the campaign, Bowen repeatedly attacked Parton as a right-wing fundamentalist who would bring a religious agenda to the Legislature.

Parton, who vigorously denied having any such agenda, fired back last week with a vivid mailer that accused Bowen of religious bigotry and behaving like "the brown-shirted fascists of Nazi Germany." The hit piece, sent by the California Republican Party, immediately cost him important political support.

At her campaign headquarters in a Torrance office park, a buoyant Bowen said the Nazi mailer accelerated Parton's decline. "It hit at a real personal, visceral level," she said. "A lot of people were very offended."

Bowen attributed the magnitude of her victory to the "broad philosophical differences" between herself and Parton on such questions as the role of the government in private lives. "The religious right scares a lot of people," she said. "It threatens a long tradition of personal freedom."

In addition, she said, a key issue was how to revive a troubled economy in a once-prosperous district suffering from the staggering loss of aerospace and defense jobs. Dealing with the area's economic woes will be her top priority in Sacramento, Bowen said.

As a band readied to rock the red-white-and-blue-bedecked headquarters, Bowen thanked hundreds of volunteers already jubilant over Democratic victories in the presidential and U.S. Senate races in California.

The scene was far more somber in Redondo Beach, where Parton gathered with his backers at a hotel near the waterfront.

Parton said the controversial mailer accusing Bowen of Nazi tactics played a small role in his defeat. "I just think it wasn't the year to be a Republican," he said.

The GOP contender attributed his loss to high voter turnout, a Democratic registration drive, anti-Republican sentiment, and President-elect Bill Clinton's sweeping victory.

Parton also said the press was unfair in describing him as a candidate of the religious right. "I've been mislabeled," he said.

Campaign manager Doug Swardstrom had another explanation for the defeat: "Our campaign was a tremendous grass-roots effort that went up against Willie Brown's political machine and money."

But Bowen rejected that contention, saying the Democratic Party had provided her campaign with less money than Parton received from Republican leaders in Sacramento.

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