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California and the West

Blacks Focus on Assembly Contest

Politics: African American leaders line up behind Oakland ex-Mayor Elihu Harris in bid to boost their representation in Sacramento. It has slipped in recent years.


OAKLAND — San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown tossed a fund-raiser at a restaurant. Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke helped organize a reception for contributors. State Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) is rounding up support in the state Capitol.

What's unifying these African American officeholders up and down the state?

They are lining up behind the Assembly candidacy of former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, who wants to win back his old seat in the lower house.

In their view, the special election next Tuesday for the heavily Democratic 16th District is a crucial battleground in efforts to boost African American numbers in the California Assembly, especially with an experienced lawmaker like Harris.

When he last sat in the Assembly in 1990, Democrat Harris served alongside six African Americans in the 80-member chamber. Today, the total of African Americans has dropped to four, all of whom are from Los Angeles-area districts.

"This is a seat that's historically been represented by African Americans. It's the only seat that has that kind of history outside of Los Angeles," said Harris, 51, who recently finished an eight-year stint as mayor.

Political strategists say the drop in African American representation in the Assembly since Harris' departure is the result of population shifts and a changing political landscape brought on by the redrawing of legislative lines in the early 1990s.

Black politicians view the campaign in Oakland as a way to halt the trend. They see the 16th District as a rare target of opportunity, citing a strong Democratic constituency and a pool of black voters and other minorities who are open to backing an African American.

"Our numbers have dwindled and we need to bring that back up," said Murray, who is chairman of the legislative black caucus.

With a large black middle class, Oakland has long served as a cradle of black political activism. For 50 years, Alameda County's legislative delegation has included at least one black lawmaker, most recently state Sen. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).

When Lee was elected to Congress last year, the entire San Francisco Bay Area was left without an African American in either house of the state Legislature.

"It's unfortunate when you have any group that's not represented in the process, and in Northern California you just have no representation of African Americans in the . . . Legislature," said Burke, who began her political career in the Assembly. Burke said that through the years she has backed Harris, who was her aide in Washington when she was in Congress in the 1970s.

Some Democrats say Harris had a mixed record as mayor and faces a struggle to keep the Bay Area tradition of African American representation alive.

"Local government is not a safe political office because you get blamed for things you don't control," Harris said. "If the buses aren't running on time, you get blamed."

Earlier this month, Harris, 51, was succeeded as mayor by former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. Harris did not seek reelection.

Harris, a native of Los Angeles, faces a strong, well-financed challenge from Oakland attorney and activist Frank Russo. Democrat Russo describes Harris, with 20 years in government under his belt, as a politician who has worn out his welcome with voters.

"Race is not the issue. Voters want a fresh approach," said Russo, 47, a workers' compensation attorney who in 1990 gained attention by opposing a deal to lure the Raiders pro football team back to Oakland.

Also on the ballot is another Democrat, Enrique Palacios, an educator, and Green Party hopeful Audie Elizabeth Bock, a part-time community college teacher. If no candidate gets a majority, the top Democrat will square off against Bock in a March 31 runoff.

The Feb. 2 election is the latest in a string of special elections touched off last year by the retirement of veteran Democratic Rep. Ron Dellums. He was succeeded by Lee, whose seat was filled by the election of Assemblyman Don Perata (D-Alameda) to the Senate. Now, Perata's vacant seat is being filled.

The 16th District encompasses Oakland, Piedmont and Alameda. Democrats make up 65% of the registered voters, followed by independents and Republicans, both hovering around 14%. The remainder is split among minor parties. About 40% of the district's registered voters are black.

On the campaign trail, Harris is plugging what he did for Oakland public schools and schoolchildren, including the opening of homework centers. Lawn signs stacked in his downtown Oakland headquarters read: "Elihu 'for Kids' Harris."

Russo too is trumpeting education and the need to improve student achievement. His lawn signs tout education reform.

Russo's aim, however, is to tarnish Harris' record, suggesting that he failed to deliver on promises to improve Oakland public schools. Underlying the criticism, political strategists say, is Russo's need to exploit dissatisfaction with Harris' performance as mayor to draw out older, white voters in the Oakland Hills and the city of Alameda.

Political consultants say that Harris can't take his base in the African American community for granted. But "if blacks turn out, Harris should win," predicted one Democratic strategist.

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