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California Elections / LEGISLATURE : GOP Threatens to Gain Control of Assembly : Close races leave makeup of lower house in doubt. Republicans appear to have captured at least five more seats and are challenging for five others. Democrats seem likely to retain Senate control.


Control of the Assembly hung on the outcome of a handful of close races as Republicans threatened to topple the Democrats from power for the first time in decades and deny Speaker Willie Brown a final leadership term, but the Democrats appeared likely to retain their control of the state Senate.

The exact makeup of the Assembly was in doubt early today, but the Republicans appear to have picked up at least five seats that had been held by Democrats and were challenging for five others.

Democrats managed to grab one district that was previously Republican, and two other GOP seats remained up for grabs by either party, leaving the Assembly lineup unclear.

Brown needs 41 votes in the Assembly to retain the leadership post he has held longer than anyone. Going into Tuesday's election the Democrats held a 47-33 edge.

A Republican spokesman estimated that the GOP would pick up at least five seats in the Assembly, but he said early Wednesday that the situation remained "volatile and changing by the hour."

At least two first-term Democrats, Assembly members Julie Bornstein of Palm Desert and Tom Connolly of Lemon Grove, were trailing.

All 80 Assembly seats and 21 of the 40 state Senate seats were up for grabs in Tuesday's balloting.

Brown, who can stretch his record-setting tenure another two years if the Democrats hold their majority in the Assembly, is blocked by term limits from running for reelection in 1996.

Before Tuesday, the Senate the lineup was 22 Democrats, 15 Republicans, two independents and one vacancy resulting from the corruption conviction and resignation of former Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier). Tuesday's matchups were the first general election test for new Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).

Fired-up Republicans, backed by the religious right, saw this election as their best chance in years to break the grip Democrats have held on both houses of the Legislature for more than two decades. One reason for their optimism was the voter-imposed term limit that caused 27 incumbents to retire or run for different offices, creating election opportunities.

Among the newcomers expected to win Assembly contests are Democrats Shelia James Kuehl, a Santa Monica lawyer and former actress who would become the first openly gay member of the Legislature, and Kevin Murray, a Los Angeles attorney seeking to join his father, Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. of Paramount, as the first father-son team to serve simultaneously.

Also, Democrat Hilda Solis, a first-term assemblywoman from La Puente, is expected to capture a heavily Democratic San Gabriel Valley seat in the state Senate and become the first Latina elected to that body.

Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-El Segundo), 84, sought a new four-year term in a coastal district carved out in the 1992 redistricting of legislative boundaries. First elected to the Assembly in 1938, Dills faced his toughest challenge in years, even though he heavily outspent Republican rival David Barrett Cohen, a Redondo Beach attorney.

Lockyer's financial help was vital to Dills as well as to Democrat Kay Ceniceros, a Riverside County supervisor who was losing n a nasty campaign against Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) in a district in which registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 50% to 38%.

The success of Haynes is central to GOP hopes of making major gains in the Senate. In the campaign's homestretch, Haynes received $150,000 from a company owned by Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), who is closely aligned with the religious right.

In a third Senate district, where Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans, Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria) clashed with Republican Steve MacElvaine, a former member of the California Coastal Commission. The district stretches into Ventura County.

In a hard-fought Assembly contest, freshman Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), who has received more than $140,000 in contributions from gambling interests since 1992, faces a stiff challenge from Democrat Bruce Philpott. In last-minute allegations, Hoge's ex-wife said he suffered from a "serious gambling addiction" that helped destroy their marriage. Hoge deplored a Philpott-backed mailer as a "Nixonian dirty trick."

Another Republican freshman, Assemblyman James E. Rogan of Glendale, faced a scrappy challenge from Adam Schiff, a former assistant U.S. attorney, in what has been a GOP stronghold.

GOP strategists saw opportunities to pick up Los Angeles-area seats held by first-term Assemblywoman Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) and veteran Assemblyman Bob Epple (D-Cerritos), both of whom won close contests two years ago.

They also consider two other Democratic newcomers, Bornstein and Connolly , vulnerable. Connolly, perhaps the weakest Democratic incumbent, admitted having been a cocaine addict, a failed husband, a child-support deadbeat, a tax delinquent and a failed businessman.

In Orange County, the most bitter Assembly clash was between Democratic businessman Mike Metzler and his GOP opponent, small-business owner Jim Morrissey.

Both major parties were also battling down to the wire in several Senate races in the Central Valley. One slugfest featured freshman Sen. Phil Wyman (R-Tehachapi), who last year beat Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Hanford) in a special election. Wyman is now seeking a full four-year term against Costa in a more heavily Democratic farm belt district redrawn in reapportionment.

As the election approached, Republicans mounted a last-minute challenge to Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-Modesto) in a farm district that is becoming a bedroom community for the Bay Area.

Farther north, in a district that stretches from the edge of San Francisco Bay to the Oregon border, Lockyer-backed Michael H. McGowan was trailing freshman Sen. Maurice Johannessen (R-Redding), who was strongly backed by Senate Republicans.

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