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Finish Line Close in Some Districts

Primary: With overwhelmingly Democratic registration, a handful of communities in Los Angeles County will be making their final choices Tuesday.

March 02, 2000|JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say you're seeking a contested seat in the Legislature and you win your party's nomination in Tuesday's primary. In most cases, you would barely have time to sip your victory night champagne before getting back on the stump for the fall election.

But if you're the Democratic nominee in a handful of districts in Los Angeles County, you can rest assured that you'll be going to Sacramento, even if you don't walk another precinct or raise another campaign dollar before the Nov. 7 general election.

That is because voter registration in these districts--most of them covering urban, working-class or minority communities--is so overwhelmingly Democratic that Republicans have virtually no chance of winning, short of a front-runner's getting caught up in a big scandal.

(In some other, largely white, rural or suburban districts elsewhere in California, Republicans can count on being elected in the fall.)

Demographics in much of the Los Angeles area and the state's term limits law have combined to produce seven state legislative contests--two for state Senate and five for Assembly--in which the November outcome will, in effect, be determined Tuesday.

"The Democrats who win these primaries could almost go out of town" for the fall campaign," said Steven Afriat, a Los Angeles political consultant who works on Democratic or nonpartisan campaigns.

The sure bets typically are in areas where voter demographics are so lopsided that they are not subject to the reapportionment battles between the two major parties that take place in so-called swing areas, where registration is more evenly distributed. The boundaries must be redrawn once a decade to reflect population changes, and, in a swing district, a small boundary change may tilt the advantage to one party.

Across Los Angeles County, almost twice as many Democrats as Republicans--2,022,316 to 1,070,759--are registered voters, according to election officials. Within some districts, however, the gap is much wider; in the 51st Assembly District, stretching south and east from Inglewood, for example, Democrats have a 4 to 1 edge. In the seven "sure bet" Democratic seats, GOP registration ranges from 13% to 28%.

"When Republican registration drops below 35% in a district, it's not a competitive seat; it's as simple as that," said political consultant Parke Skelton, whose firm is advising candidates in six such races.

That means that virtually all a candidate's campaign funds--which may be more than $300,000--will be spent on the primary. And some will probably be spent courting independent and Republican voters, who, under California's recently implemented blanket primary system, can vote for anyone on the ballot.

All seven races are for seats that are open because, under California's voter-approved 1990 law limiting terms in the Legislature, the current officeholders cannot seek reelection this year.

Los Angeles' two hot Senate primaries feature termed-out Assembly incumbents battling for political survival. Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), erstwhile allies, are competing in an increasingly contentious race that has traumatized liberals in the affluent 23rd District. The seat, which includes the Westside and parts of the San Fernando Valley, is open because the term limits law is forcing Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) to leave.

The other contentious Senate primary is for the largely minority, working-class 25th District, which stretches east from Inglewood through Gardena and Compton to Lynwood and Paramount. The term-limits law is ousting the incumbent, Sen. Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood).

Fighting to succeed her are Assemblyman Edward Vincent, a former Inglewood mayor endorsed by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, and Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington), perhaps best known for his salty speech and his authorship of the motorcycle helmet law. Floyd cannot seek reelection to his 55th Assembly District seat because of term limits, while Vincent will be termed out in the 51st Assembly District in two more years.

The races for the Assembly seats that the would-be senators are leaving are crowded, a reflection of the opportunities candidates see in not having to face incumbents.

"On the whole, I think term limits have been a disaster, but, as these seats now turn over regularly, they have created more opportunities in safely partisan seats, and that part is good," consultant Skelton said.

In the 42nd Assembly District, based in Los Angeles' Westside and southern San Fernando Valley, three Democrats are in the primary--West Hollywood Councilman Paul Koretz, attorney Amanda Susskind and physician Daniel J. Stone.

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