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DECISION '94 : Democrats in Legislature Fend Off Defeat


Escaping the Republican tide that swept away many of their colleagues elsewhere, Westside Democrats seeking a place in the California Legislature made a clean sweep of one Senate and four Assembly seats in Tuesday's election.

Area Democrats chalked up a couple of significant firsts with the victories. Feminist lawyer and former actress Sheila James Kuehl won in the 41st Assembly District to become California's first openly lesbian or gay legislator. Kevin Murray's victory in the 47th Assembly District gives the state its first father-son legislative duo.

And in a year when incumbents fared poorly, state Sen. Ralph C. Dills--perhaps the ultimate incumbent at age 84--beat off a young challenger to return to his 28th Senate District.

In the other Assembly races, incumbent Debra Bowen beat back a Republican challenger in the beach cities of the 53rd Assembly District, while Wally Knox easily defeated his Republican opponent in the open race for the 42nd District seat.

Surrounded by a throng of well-wishers crowded into her Santa Monica home late Tuesday, an ebullient Kuehl credited "fabulous grass-roots support" for her victory over Republican challenger Michael T. Meehan, a law student and reserve sheriff's deputy.

"I think this is a victory for hope and for what can happen when people work together for positive values," she said.

The 41st District stretches from Santa Monica to the Ventura County line, encompassing such disparate communities as Pacific Palisades, Malibu, Calabasas and Hidden Hills.

Kuehl is unapologetically liberal, a feminist and a law professor who, after graduating from Harvard Law School at age 37, became a women's rights attorney and nationally recognized expert on domestic violence. But she is perhaps best known for her role as the brainy Zelda in the old TV series, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."

Meehan, a mainstream, law-and-order Republican, had sought to portray Kuehl as too liberal for a district that includes such suburban enclaves as Calabasas and Hidden Hills. But unlike Kuehl, 53, who benefited from a campaign war chest that exceeded $400,000, Meehan raised less than $50,000, receiving little help from GOP heavyweights.

Meanwhile, Dills, the octogenarian state senator who advertised himself as "Too Old to Quit," retained his 28th District seat by defeating Republican David Barrett Cohen, a Redondo Beach attorney.

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

By winning the 47th Assembly District with 70% of the vote, Kevin Murray joins his father, Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), who coasted to reelection in the 52nd Assembly District, which includes Compton, Gardena, Lynwood and Watts.

Kevin Murray will represent an area in which he grew up. The district includes parts of Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw district, Culver City, Palms and South-Central Los Angeles.

"I'm a little disappointed that the rest of our (Democratic) ticket didn't do so well, but I'm looking forward to representing my neighborhood," Murray, an attorney in Windsor Hills, said after the polls closed on Tuesday.

In the 42nd Assembly District, Knox coasted to victory over Republican opponent Robert Davis. Knox, 47, a labor attorney and board member of the Los Angeles Community College District, saw his win as defying a nationwide trend toward the GOP.

"What's going on, outside of my race, is a massive disillusionment with the ability of government to deliver services we thought it could deliver," Knox said from the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, where his supporters held a victory celebration.

In the 53rd Assembly District, Bowen, 38, beat insurance agent Julian Sirull to win reelection. The district stretches from Venice to Marina del Rey, Westchester and the South Bay beach cities.

Bowen 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.

Times staff writers Gordon Dillow and Deborah S. Schoch, and correspondents James Benning, Scott Collins, Mary Moore and Susan Woodward, contributed to this report.

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