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Last-Minute GOP Donations Tipped Key Assembly Races : Politics: Republican Party, Philip Morris and political action committees changed balance in several contests, loosening Brown's hold on speakership.


SACRAMENTO — On the eve of the Nov. 8 election, Democrats, already anxious about the reelection chances of first-term Assemblywoman Betty Karnette of Long Beach, saw an ominous sign.

Sacks bulging with mail from her Republican opponent, Rancho Palos Verdes City Mayor Steve Kuykendall, began arriving at post offices for delivery to voters.

The last-minute mailings, underwritten with a $125,000 contribution from tobacco giant Philip Morris U.S.A., helped tip a close election in Kuykendall's favor and may end Democrat Willie Brown's record 14-year Assembly speakership.

That the tobacco industry would deliver the fatal blow is a strange irony. Few political leaders in the past decade have taken more money from the tobacco industry than Brown, who received more than $400,000. In 1991-92, he received $220,000, more than any other politician during that time, according to a study by UC San Francisco researcher Stanton Glantz. Brown has attended the Kentucky Derby as a guest of a tobacco company, and in his private law practice has counseled a company with major tobacco holdings.

If Kuykendall holds his narrow lead when all absentee ballots are counted, Republicans are expected to emerge with a 41-39 edge in the 80-member lower house. Trying somehow to hang onto the speakership, Brown has called an unusual session for today of the lame-duck Assembly, where Democrats maintain a 47-33 margin.

Philip Morris gambled by crossing Brown (D-San Francisco). But the firm's infusion of cash was also a show of special interest strength, and Philip Morris was not alone in contributing campaign money in a handful of close Assembly races the GOP won, tipping the balance of power away from Democrats and to Republicans for the first time since 1969.

Gun owners and the state prison guards union influenced other tight races. A far-right political action committee also spent heavily on GOP candidates. Taken together, the donations show how big money given late in the campaign influenced close contests at a time when voters are increasingly unfamiliar with short-term incumbents who are turning over faster than ever because of voter-imposed term limits and the effects of the 1991 reapportionment.

Although last-minute special interest contributions were important, there were other factors as well.

Brown has long been considered a master strategist, but his last-minute fund-raising prowess failed to match that of Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, and Brulte is now on the verge of unseating Brown as Speaker of what will be a closely divided house.

Realizing Democrats' vulnerability in the final days before the election, Republicans poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into swing districts, leaving the Speaker unable to match the spending.

Brown's money problems were compounded by the GOP tide that swept the state and country, and his party's general opposition to Proposition 187, the popular anti-illegal immigration measure. Also, in some races, especially in a strong Democratic seat centered around Salinas, Democrats seem to have taken victory for granted.

Democrats were also plagued by abysmally low voter turnouts, particularly among blacks, and top of the ticket candidates Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown attracting money that otherwise would have gone to Assembly Democratic candidates.

With Karnette's apparent defeat, four Democratic incumbent Assembly members will have lost. Four other seats previously held by Democrats went to Republicans.

The Republican victory even surprised Brulte. "We thought it was possible to get to 41 or 42 (in the Assembly) if everything broke right, but we didn't anticipate it," he said. Still, he said, "15 days out, I made the decision that we would go for broke."

Finally, he said, "it was my gut instinct" change was coming.

Brulte's gambit earned the respect of Bill Cavala, a top Brown campaign deputy, who said he was surprised by the money that flowed to GOP candidates in the final days. He praised the way Brulte allocated his money to campaigns and "took some gambles," especially against Karnette.

Brulte said he did not solicit Philip Morris' $125,000 donation to Kuykendall, but knew it was coming a month before the money arrived. The Philip Morris money allowed Brulte to spend his money elsewhere.

Philip Morris executive David Laufer told The Times that the donation was aimed not at deposing Brown but specifically at Karnette, who voted against tobacco repeatedly during her one Assembly term.

"We contributed because we opposed the incumbent," Laufer said. "It was the incumbent we were opposing."

Democrats say Philip Morris was attempting to send a message to any legislator who favors anti-smoking legislation. Kuykendall said Philip Morris officials knew he supported the Rancho Palos Verdes' resolution opposing Proposition 188, the tobacco industry's effort to overturn local and state smoking restrictions, and voted for the city's ban on smoking in restaurants.

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