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LOCAL ELECTIONS / 37th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT : Foe's Indictment Spurs Libertarian : With Democratic Rep. Walter Tucker accused of taking bribes, lone challenger Guy Wilson sees a chance to make a mark. But political experts say the incumbent need not worry.

October 18, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Merchant seaman Guy Wilson was hundreds of miles away at a Seattle port when Rep. Walter R. Tucker III (D-Compton) was indicted.

"Yes!" Wilson shouted, his fist in the air, as his crew mates looked on curiously.

Wilson, a 34-year-old Libertarian, is the only challenger to Tucker in the 37th Congressional District, which includes Compton, Carson and parts of San Pedro and Long Beach. The district is so heavily Democratic (77%) that no Republican felt it worth entering the race.

Tucker, 37, became a bit more vulnerable last month when a federal grand jury indicted him on 10 counts of extortion and income tax evasion. Federal prosecutors accused him of accepting $30,000 in bribes during his tenure as Compton's mayor. He has pleaded not guilty.

Wilson had not planned to spend any more than $1,000 on the campaign until the news of Tucker's indictment broke. Now he has opened a campaign office in Long Beach, selected a volunteer campaign manager and treasurer, raised $10,000 and plans to tape a cable television commercial.

Libertarians--who have never elected a congressman and are eager to draw public attention to their philosophy of abolishing most governmental regulation--have zeroed in on the race, holding fund-raisers and helping Wilson campaign.

Nevertheless, Wilson, an African American who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, refuses to pass judgment on the charges against Tucker.

"I'll leave that up to the jury," he said. But he dismisses the congressman's argument that the government's probe was racially motivated.

"Rubbish," Wilson said, leaning back in a chair at his headquarters on Long Beach Boulevard. "I am sick and tired of hearing how blacks got a raw deal in this country. Instead of crying about that, we've got to break free" of government.

One of the ways to do that, he says, is to follow the Libertarian motto: Stop relying on government to solve your problems.

Wilson fancies himself an independent fellow, fond of mottos like "Live free or die!" and "Damn the rules; it's the feeling that counts." He decided to challenge Tucker last February when he realized that the congressman was likely to face no opposition. He'd gotten some political experience as a union representative and had quit the Democratic Party in disgust two years earlier to become a Libertarian. "I was fed up (with the system), but I couldn't sit around and complain any longer," he said.

He didn't have enough money to pay ballot registration fees, so he went to the streets to gather signatures to get on the ballot.

Political analysts say Tucker, even under the cloud of an indictment, will have an easy shot at reelection. Long before the June primary, rumors had surfaced that the FBI was investigating Tucker, but he easily trounced his Democratic opponent, San Pedro businessman Lew Prulitsky. The Tucker name is popular in Compton, where Tucker served as mayor and his father was a school board member, councilman and then mayor until his death in 1990.

"It is way too stacked" against Wilson, said Fernando J. Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester. "Incumbency has an effect, even after death or indictment."

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The money Wilson has raised would be a drop in the bucket to a major party but unusual for many Libertarian candidates, who are accustomed to waging campaigns out of their homes.

"Everybody is interested in his campaign," said Alan Carlan, a Libertarian running for the 54th Assembly District seat held by Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach). "This is a very, very unique opportunity."

Wilson grew up with his grandparents in what he calls a lower-middle-class home, while his five siblings were being raised in New York with his mother. His father, also a merchant seaman, lived in Los Angeles.

The candidate says that as a teen-ager he spent a lot of time at the local library, as much for socializing ("to hang out with the ladies") as for learning. Yet his intellectual bent was clear. The first book he remembers from his teens was "Blacks in Economics" by Thomas Sowell, a black conservative economic adviser to Ronald Reagan.

At 19, Wilson became a merchant seaman, and several years later he moved to San Pedro. Co-workers who have gone on monthlong voyages with him say he is outspoken and driven.

"If he believes in something, he practices it and preaches it," said Kerry Williams, a junior engineer with the National Maritime Union in Wilmington.

In August, Wilson helped organize a strike on the Golden Gate, protesting the Keystone Shipping Co.'s failure to release records of benzene levels on the ship. The firm eventually turned over the records to the workers.

Wilson gave co-workers few indications that he was interested in politics. He was frustrated that almost half his paycheck went to taxes and he came to believe his own Democratic Party was only making matters worse. So in 1992, he switched to the Libertarian Party.

If elected, Wilson says, his first move would be to try to repeal the 16th Amendment, which established the income tax. He also favors government vouchers that would let parents send their children to either public or private schools, opposes gun control and the "three strikes" laws, and wants to greatly reduce the authority of the Food and Drug Administration to keep products off the market.

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