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DECISION '94: Spotlight on Local Elections : Dills Responds to Cohen's Sax Appeal


Redondo Beach attorney David Barrett Cohen has hammered State Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-El Segundo) on his long tenure, his pensions and his special interest contributions.

But the Republican opponent's mailer is what really irritated the 84-year-old Dills. It featured Cohen borrowing a Dills trademark, holding a saxophone and the slogan "Time to Change the Tune."

"He has only one hand on the damn thing," said Dills, once a professional sax player, in his raspy, Southwestern drawl. "You can't play a sax with only one hand."

Their race in the 28th State Senate District is a classic matchup of a young upstart versus the long-entrenched, battle-tested incumbent. (Also running are Peace and Freedom candidate Cindy Henderson and Libertarian Neal Arvid Donner.)

Cohen has tried to define his opponent as out of touch and beholden to liquor, gambling and tobacco industry political action committees--"sin PACs," as Dills calls them.

Dills, meanwhile, has seized on his opponent's fumbles. Most recently: Cohen's charge that Dills collected a legislative pension while in the Senate. It turned out to be false, and Cohen sent a letter of apology.

Making their battle more complex is the split personality of the 28th District, which was created when legislative lines were redrawn to include the beach cities Playa del Rey, Westchester, Marina del Rey and Venice. The district's eastern half--considered a Dills stronghold--includes blue-collar and ethnically diverse Compton, Carson and Wilmington.

"The point is: Will there be so many votes in the Republican coast areas to counteract (the) east side (of the district)?" said Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "For Cohen to have any chance, he has to win big in the beach cities and hold his own in the eastern end."

At the end of September, Dills had $77,833 in his campaign war chest, compared to Cohen's $53,085. State Republicans won't say whether they'll invest in the final weeks of the race.

Cohen takes pains to distance himself from conservative Republicans. He favors abortion rights and opposes Proposition 187, the initiative that would deny many public services to illegal immigrants.

"I grew up thinking that Republicans didn't care about the poor," said Cohen, who was raised in a working-class section of Washington. "I felt they were mean-spirited and greedy."

He credits Jack Kemp for changing his mind in the mid-1980s. The then-New York congressman, who ran for President in 1988, had a platform of "bleeding heart" conservatism that emphasized aid to urban areas. Cohen has adopted many parts of Kemp's platform of enterprise zones and tax incentives to stimulate poor areas.

"I'm the type of Republican people can respond to in this area," Cohen said. "It seemed pretty much tailor-made for me."

It's also the same approach he took in his unsuccessful bid against Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) in 1990. Cohen did well in the South Bay areas of El Segundo and Manhattan Beach, but was trounced by Levine in the Democratic strongholds of the Westside.

This time Cohen is trying to persuade longtime Democrats in Carson to cross party lines. In doing so, he's promoting his family's multiethnic history--he is half Jewish, half-Samoan, prompting his slogan a "rainbow on the right"--as well as his ties to Carson's Pacific Islander community. Among them are more than 200 relatives.

"Our family has sort of a weird, tortured history, but it is sort of the wave of the future," he said.

For his part, Dills is fighting hard to retain his foothold in Carson. At a recent Carson parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's landing in the Philippines, Dills promoted his ties to Filipino Americans, including a scholarship that the United Filipino Service Organization gives in his wife's name.

"As I see those of you my age, we're not ready for the trash heap this soon," said Dills to the war veterans.

Dills, who taught in Compton schools in the 1930s and 1940s, traces his judicial and legislative career to 1938. Resplendent in wild and colorful ties (fuchsia and purple neon on a recent day), he recalls playing saxophone with Nat King Cole and his brother and that baseball great Duke Snyder was one of his students.

But far from reminiscing on the trail, Dills has set out to highlight his accomplishments in the state Senate, where he chairs the powerful Government Organization Committee and is the body's presiding officer.

And in appealing to the beach cities, he's trumpeting his ties to environmentalists, on the premise residents there are more eco-conscious. His endorsers include the California League of Conservation Voters, a group that had once chided him for pro-industry votes. He recently helped push through a bill banning offshore oil drilling in state tidelands.

"It's the people's will," he says of his switch to "green" issues. "I'm in a new district. They're the boss. (The oil companies) didn't like it. But there was not a damn thing they could do about it."

And then there's the age issue. Dills spent almost $500,000 during the primary on billboards showing him tooting a sax and the slogan "Too Old to Quit."

"I go to the funerals of those who exercise," he said.

Senate District 28

Where: Along the coast from Venice to Redondo Beach, extending inland to include sections of Long Beach and Compton.

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