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Contest to Succeed Hayden a Battle of Allies

ELECTIONS

Assembly members Sheila Kuehl and Wally Knox each hope to step up to state Senate. Primary winner will be favored in November.

January 18, 2000|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On paper it can be hard to tell them apart.

Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) are both liberal Democrats with voting records to prove it. She cares passionately about the environment, education and health care. Ditto for him.

Now the friends and political allies are pitted against each other in a race brought about by term limits--one articulate, popular liberal against another--fighting to succeed ultraliberal Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) in the state's 23rd Senate District.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, with less than two months to go before the March 7 primary, Knox and Kuehl are struggling to differentiate themselves in the eyes of voters.

The stakes are high: In this traditionally Democratic stronghold, whoever wins the primary will probably win the general election.

Kuehl has locked up endorsements from powerful California Democrats Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

She has the backing of most city councils from Santa Monica to Agoura Hills.

But Knox has the support of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan--which in an open primary could earn him the votes of crossover Republican voters.

Making the race even more difficult to predict, observers said, is the question of voter turnout.

Voter registration and turnout in the district, which runs from Hancock Park to Malibu and straddles the Santa Monica Mountains, have usually been high.

The district includes Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Woodland Hills, Calabasas, Sherman Oaks and Studio City.

In 1996, more than 63% of 468,000 registered voters turned out for the fall election; 58.2% of those were Democrats.

But any of a number of factors could tip the scales toward one candidate or the other.

"Her appeal is to the people who have strong views, who might tend to vote more in primaries," said Robert M. Stern, co-director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit research organization in Los Angeles.

"But if there is heavy turnout, because the presidential race is exciting, that might be better for him."

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Kuehl says her issues are health care, social justice, the environment and education, and she is blunt about what distinguishes her from Knox.

"Leadership is the major difference between me and the guy running against me," Kuehl told supporters recently.

The law school professor and former child actor, who enjoys residual celebrity status for her role as Zelda Gilroy on the 1960s TV show "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," is known for her intelligence and charisma.

Kuehl considers 1999 her most successful year to date: She wrote a bill protecting gay and lesbian students, helped establish minimum nurse-to-patient ratios, helped reform California's beleaguered child support system, and shepherded a bill through the Legislature to transfer private land to the state to complete the 64-mile Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains.

One would think it would be hard for an opinionated, straight-talking, openly gay liberal to make inroads, and yet she has served as speaker pro tem--the first woman is California history to do so--and Capitol watchers say she moves easily through Sacramento, disarming even conservative colleagues with her charm.

In its 1998 biannual rating, the California Journal rated Kuehl the Assembly member with the most intelligence and integrity.

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Knox is equally eloquent, and says his ability to discern and tend to voters' daily needs is what differentiates him from Kuehl.

He cites two recent victories as examples: his success in rolling back 10-digit dialing in the 310 area code, and his successful quest for funding for two projects to improve traffic flow at the often clogged interchange between the San Diego and Ventura freeways.

"I focus on what the district really cares about," Knox said. "That is bringing real solutions to people's everyday lives."

Knox has worked hard to capitalize on his area code victory, already mailing out thousands of mailers to the Westside touting his work.

Another mailer aimed at San Fernando Valley voters, promoting his work on the highway interchange, will go out shortly.

In the Legislature, Knox said, he has worked--among other things--to successfully limit gun purchases to one a month, to ensure that workers get overtime if they work more than eight hours a day, and to require insurance companies to release the names of unpaid policyholders from before World War II or get kicked out of California.

Those who watched Knox in his run for the Assembly in 1994 say his fund-raising prowess is a real strength. That year, seven candidates spent more than $1.5 million in a race for the Democratic nomination.

Knox raised the most, and won.

Kuehl leads in fund-raising so far, having pulled in $568,000, compared to Knox's $419,000. She has $414,144 in cash on hand, compared with his $251,000.

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