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DECISION '94: Spotlight on Local Elections : Knox Counting on Party Loyalty in Election

October 23, 1994|SCOTT COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last spring, seven Democrats were slugging it out in a fiercely competitive race for the 42nd District Assembly seat. Incumbent Burt Margolin's decision to step down and run for insurance commissioner triggered a free-for-all that brought suspense to a predictably liberal district.

So long, suspense. Hello, Wally Knox.

After squeaking by in the June primary, Knox, a labor lawyer and trustee of the Los Angeles Community College District, has emerged as the clear front-runner in the Nov. 8 general election campaign. He has raised almost 20 times as much money as his main challenger, West Hollywood Republican Robert Davis.

According to county records, the Knox campaign had raised $435,285 as of Sept. 30, while the Davis camp had mustered only $25,613.

More important, registration in the district--which includes most of the Westside east of the San Diego Freeway and north of Wilshire Boulevard, along with southeast portions of the San Fernando Valley--runs about 60% Democratic and 25% Republican.

For years, the 42nd has been considered the heart of the political machine run by U.S. Reps. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

The 42nd "has about as strong a Democratic loyalty as any non-minority district in California," said a Los Angeles-based GOP political consultant. Knox "is probably already up in Sacramento picking out what kind of office he wants."

Well, not quite. A candidate can't be too careful with today's volatile electorate.

In the primary, Knox, 47, positioned himself as a moderate Democrat with a law-and-order bent. One campaign flyer played on crime fears by showing two thugs presumably ready for mayhem in constituents' neighborhoods. But some say Knox has tiptoed to the left since then.

While the candidate says he embraces most get-tough approaches to repeat offenders, he is against Proposition 184, the "three-strikes" crime initiative on the ballot.

"The 'three-strikes' initiative will be very expensive . . . and I flatly don't think it's what people want," Knox said in a recent interview.

In its place, he favors better sentencing guidelines and more educational programs for at-risk youths.

Knox also opposes the popular but highly controversial Proposition 187, which would make illegal immigrants ineligible for many public services.

"The measure is going to pass overwhelmingly, but it's so riddled with constitutional and drafting problems that it's doubtful the major provisions will find their way into enforcement," he said.

Such positions might be a liability in another district, but not the 42nd, which is sometimes derided as a haven for "limousine liberals." Republican Davis--a 49-year-old swimming pool contractor and longtime political activist--has responded with GOP boilerplate against high taxes and high spending.

More provocative is Davis' contention that Knox is in the pocket of labor unions.

Knox and his wife, Elizabeth Garfield, have represented high-profile labor clients at their law firm, including oil and chemical workers and Los Angeles harbor pilots. Some observers compared the couple to Bill and Hillary Clinton last year, when Garfield joined her husband on the community college board. Both enjoyed strong backing from the faculty union.

Knox "is a creature of the unions," Davis said in an interview. "During the recession, when money (for community colleges) was short, he gave teacher unions a salary increase and reduced their hours of class time."

Knox defended his record on the college board, saying that the 3% pay raise for teachers and staff was long overdue and that trustees had actually found ways to cut other costs such as health benefits.

Also on the ballot in the 42nd is Eric M. Fine, a 31-year-old Libertarian Party candidate who said he has not been raising money or actively campaigning but has joined the race to give voters an alternative to politics as usual.

Assembly District 42

Where: Most of the Westside east of the San Diego Freeway and north of Wilshire Boulevard.

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