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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / THE LEGISLATURE : A Changing of the Old Guard in Sacramento


SACRAMENTO — The 101 contests for state Assembly and Senate seats on the Nov. 8 election ballot are ushering in a new era in California legislative politics.

After wielding influence in the powerful Assembly Speaker's post for a record 14 years, Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) is running for his seat in the lower house for the last time. Brown will be leaving the Assembly after two more years, forced out by voter-approved term limits.

The election also serves as a moment of truth for new Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who is struggling to maintain Democratic control of the upper house in the face of a strong challenge from Republican candidates, some of whose campaigns are fueled by contributions from the religious right.

As part of the changing of the guard in the Capitol, spurred by term limits, 27 incumbents decided to retire or run for higher office.

And perhaps more important for the future than the stature of those departing, their replacements will increasingly mirror the state's diversity, with women and Latinos expected to enhance their numbers and be joined by the first openly gay state legislator.

Although Democrats believe they will maintain their majorities in both houses, the potentially volatile anti-Democratic mood of voters has candidates worrying and raising large amounts of money to win their elections.

Republicans see a banner year, with dislike of President Clinton weighing down his fellow Democrats, even those at the state level. Democrats say that California voters will follow their traditional independent pattern and zigzag down the ballot, not voting a straight party line.

Underscoring the anxiety, Speaker Brown, who bankrolls many campaigns, not surprisingly has urged all Democratic hopefuls to walk precincts.

"I am encouraging everyone to walk and campaign and do everything that they did to first get them up here," Brown said.

But the Speaker is not following his own advice. "I don't need to," Brown said. "If I walked precincts, it would take away from the time I spend raising money for other Assembly Democratic candidates."

Stoking the uncertainty is the fact that voters are much more focused on the glitzier races at the top of the ballot than on low-profile contests for all 80 Assembly seats and 21 of the Senate's 40 seats.

In the Assembly, among the Democratic hopefuls expected to win--and add a new dimension--are Santa Monica law professor and former television actress Shelia Kuehl, who would be the first openly gay member of the Legislature, and attorney Kevin Murray, who, with his father, Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), would form the first father-son duo to serve simultaneously in the same house.

The rookie ranks also are likely to include Republican farmer Tom J. Bordonaro Jr. of Paso Robles, who uses a wheelchair and is expected to capture a Central Coast Assembly seat vacated by a GOP incumbent who is running for Congress.

The Assembly Rules Committee has agreed to spend at least $85,000 in tax money to make Capitol offices more accessible for him and meet federal disability standards.

The outcomes of many races, however, are far less certain. Indeed, campaign strategists say that voters only begin to focus on legislative candidates in the final days before the election, when they receive a blizzard of targeted mail largely underwritten by contributions from special interests with business before the Legislature.

The campaigns are laced with themes about cracking down on crime, controlling illegal immigration, regulating gambling and the rising age of some entrenched incumbents, especially in the Senate.

"Voters know exactly what they're going to do: kill politicians. They're just deciding which ones," said veteran Democratic campaign strategist Richie Ross.

Hoping to capitalize on voter antipathy toward politicians, Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga said he hopes the Republicans can pick up two or three seats. Democrats now hold a 47-33 edge over Republicans in the Assembly.

Brulte also said that he believes there are four Democratic incumbents in serious trouble. They are Assembly members Bob Epple of Cerritos and rookies Betty Karnette of Long Beach, Julie Bornstein of Palm Desert and Tom Connolly of Lemon Grove. All four won narrow election in 1992, as fellow Democrat Clinton carried California in the presidential election. Perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat of the lot is Connolly. In a 30-second TV commercial, the affable Connolly asks voters for a second chance even though he admits to having been a cocaine addict, a failed husband, a deadbeat dad, a tax delinquent and a failed businessman. He is being challenged by Republican Steve Baldwin, who barely lost to Connolly in 1992 before the assemblyman's problems were well known.

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