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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / LEGISLATURE : Law Enforcement Resumes Reflect Importance of Crime Issue


SACRAMENTO — With crime as a driving issue, a growing number of candidates who wear the badge of law enforcement are seeking Assembly and Senate seats in the June 7 primary election.

Capitalizing on mounting public fears about crime, 18 candidates with law enforcement backgrounds--double the number four years ago--are among those running in the primary for all 80 Assembly seats and half of the 40 seats in the state Senate.

"Crime is the mother of all issues for this election, so you are seeing a lot of law enforcement candidates or candidates who have past law enforcement experience," said Ray McNally, a veteran Republican legislative campaign strategist.

"This is the season of fear," he said. "People are afraid of becoming victims of criminals."

Crime is not the only issue on the minds of voters. Other concerns include the rising number of illegal immigrants, persistent joblessness, performance of public schools and political corruption in the Legislature.

Even before the balloting begins next month, the primary lineup reflects another massive exodus of veteran lawmakers. Among the newcomers are expected to be more women, Latinos and Asian Americans.

Prompted in large measure by a voter-imposed term limit initiative, 29 legislators are either seeking higher office or retiring. Twenty-two are in the Assembly, where incumbents are limited to three two-year terms, and seven are in the Senate, where incumbents are restricted to two four-year terms.

So far, term limits have had a mixed impact--luring an influx of fresh faces to Sacramento, but failing to dramatically reduce political partisanship as the newcomers promised they would attempt to do when they arrived in the Capitol.

Coupled with the redrawing of legislative district lines to reflect 1990 census changes, term limits are expected to continue to expand the ranks of ethnic and minority groups.

The 11-member Latino caucus should pick up several new seats, including a new Los Angeles Senate seat being sought by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). But the Latino community is badly split on his replacement in the strongly Democratic district, with Polanco endorsing his aide Bill Mabie, who is white, and others favoring Antonio Villaraigosa, a Latino teacher representative.

It is also expected that the 29 female members of the Assembly will build on gains made during the much-heralded 1992 "year of the woman" in politics. Democrats have high hopes for Susan Davis, a former San Diego school district trustee, to win the seat held by retiring Assemblyman Mike Gotch.

The primary serves as a preliminary to the main election bout in November, when Democrats will be attempting to extend their 23-year-long reign in both houses of the Legislature.

In the Assembly, the party lineup is 47 Democrats and 33 Republicans.

Even Republican lawmakers concede that it is unlikely they will gain more than two or three seats. With Democrats retaining control, Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who is seeking a final term in the Assembly, would probably remain for another two years as the Assembly's leader--a position he has held since 1980.

"I think there's a good likelihood that we'll stay where we are or the numbers won't change much at all," said Gale Kauffman, the Assembly Democratic campaign strategist.

But in the Senate, things could be different.

Democrats hold a 22-16 majority over Republicans. Two other members are independents. Of the 20 seats in even-numbered districts up for grabs this year, 15 are held by Democrats, including several who are retiring rather than seeking reelection from marginal districts.

So, new President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) faces a much more daunting task than Brown as Republicans mount stiff, well-financed challenges around the state.

The force behind the GOP effort is Rob Hurtt, an upstart, rookie senator from Orange County. In the past two years, Hurtt has joined with three other Christian businessmen to lavish $3.6 million on conservative candidates and causes. He is the Senate GOP point man on campaign strategy and one of the architects of the party's plan to win a Senate majority.

In a demonstration of his deep pockets, a political action committee founded by Hurtt loaned $100,000 to right-wing Republican freshman Assemblyman Ray Haynes in late 1993 for his bid to move up to the Senate this year.

Haynes is battling longtime Riverside County Sheriff Cois Byrd for the GOP nomination to run in a Riverside-area district. That contest could become one of the most high-profile tests of the ability of a lawman to draw votes in a legislative contest.

The seat is being vacated by Democrat Robert Presley, who is running for the State Board of Equalization.

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