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ELECTION RETURNS : 54th Tally Awaits Absentee Count : Legislature: Karnette holds slim lead over Kuykendall. Democrats retain four of five Assembly seats. Dills is reelected.


While Democrats held onto four out of five South Bay Assembly seats, Democrat Betty Karnette and Republican Steve Kuykendall remained locked in a close race as of Wednesday that could determine which party will control the state Assembly.

With all precincts reporting, Karnette held a slim 64-vote lead out of about 100,000 votes cast. But a handful of uncounted absentee and provisional ballots could swing the election either way. Counting of those ballots is expected to begin today and could take several days. Even then, both sides said a recount might be necessary if the margin remains narrow.

A Karnette victory could help Democrat Willie Brown hold on as Assembly speaker, while a Kuykendall victory could put the Assembly under Republican control.

"The whole Republican Party is watching this race," Kuykendall said.

Meanwhile, in other South Bay races, incumbent state Sen. Ralph C. Dills, who at age 84 advertised himself as "Too Old To Quit," will be returning to the 28th Senate District after defeating Republican David Barrett Cohen, a Redondo Beach attorney a half century his junior.

In the Assembly, incumbent Democrats Curtis R. Tucker Jr. won in the 51st District in the Inglewood-Hawthorne area, Willard H. Murray Jr. coasted to victory in the Compton-Gardena-Lynwood 52nd District over a Republican who had pulled out of the race, Debra Bowen beat insurance agent Julian Sirull in the beach cities of the 53rd District and Juanita M. McDonald trounced a Libertarian opponent in the Carson-Compton-Long Beach 55th District.

In the 54th District, Karnette fought doggedly to retain the seat she wrested away from 14-year Republican incumbent Gerald Felando in an upset victory two years ago in the newly redrawn district.

Karnette, 63, a former public school teacher, said crime, particularly crime-prevention initiatives that target children, would remain her top priority if she retains her seat.

"If we don't give (children) something to do, they're going to find something to do," she said. "A criminal's path starts very early."

On the controversial Proposition 187, which bars government services for illegal immigrants, Karnette said she was surprised at how sweeping voter support was.

"It won't do what the public wants it to do," she predicted. She supports a stronger Border Patrol and better documentation measures to help stop illegal immigration into California.

Kuykendall, 47, the mayor of Rancho Palos Verdes and a mortgage banker, was a strong advocate of 187, calling it a good way to "send a message" to the federal government concerning illegal immigration.

At his election night celebration at a Long Beach restaurant, his supporters loudly cheered each new TV report about the large percentage of yes votes for the initiative--to the obvious annoyance of some young waiters and busboys who were working there. Later, with more passion than spelling ability, someone used soap to scrawl a message on the restaurant men's room mirror: "USA Without Immigranst is Nothig."


In the Senate race, after hours of waiting for tardy results, Dills declared victory at 5 minutes past midnight at his campaign party at the Radisson hotel in Carson--after the jazz band had disbanded and hotel workers were stacking chairs and folding up tablecloths. But Dills remained upbeat.

"I feel good about it. I feel that I have proven that you can be an octogenarian and still do the job for four more years," Dills said.

Dills said he believes voters valued his experience in Sacramento.

"You can send a nice young man up there if you want to," he said, "but he'll have a hard time finding the men's bathroom."

Dills managed to squeeze a victory out of a reformulated district that includes the heavily Republican beach cities as well as his traditional Democratic territory of Carson, Compton and Wilmington.

The bitterness of the campaign persisted in Dills' opponent even after the election. Cohen lambasted Dills for a mailer that called Cohen a deadbeat because he loaned his campaign $9,000 instead of applying it to his student loan.

"He has damaged my reputation in the community, and I have no respect for him, " said Cohen, who added that he never missed a payment on the loan.

In the 53rd District, which stretches from Venice to Marina del Rey, Westchester and the South Bay beach cities, Democratic Assemblywoman Debra Bowen, 38, ran her first reelection campaign with the traditional perks of an incumbent--name recognition, political allies and a campaign war chest far larger than her opponent's.

Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a narrow 43% to 41% in the district.

Bowen's Republican opponent, commercial insurance agent Julian Sirull, 36, cited as one of his main qualifications that he wasn't an incumbent politician. But Sirull acknowledged that he didn't get as much financial support from the Republican Party as he would have liked. As of Sept. 30, his campaign had spent $4,988, compared with $53,960 by Bowen.

In the 51st District, Tucker, who was a legislative aide before being elected to the Assembly, spent $134,000, while Republican Adam Michelin had raised only $3,257 for his campaign.

Michelin, a political newcomer who founded a chain of child-care centers, had proposed one of the most unusual ideas of the election when he advocated a program that would offer any prison inmate who volunteered for the death penalty a cash payment, made to his estate, equal to 10% of the state's savings in incarceration costs for the prisoner.

Apparently, the voters were not attracted to the idea.

Times staff writer Deborah Schoch and correspondents Susan Woodward and James Benning contributed to this report.

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