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Fierce Legislative Battles Fought in Suburban Districts

Democrats are trying to snag seats in traditionally Republican areas. Demographic shifts may decide close Assembly and Senate races.


Some of the fiercest state legislative seat battles in California in Tuesday's election are taking place in suburban Los Angeles County, where Democrats hope to build a legacy in what was recently the Republicans' backyard.

Just a few years ago, Republican victories were a foregone conclusion in Assembly and Senate races in parts of the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, Southeast Los Angeles and the port areas of Long Beach and the South Bay. But now, after demographic shifts, particularly increases in the number of Latino voters, more seats are up for grabs.

A change in representation would resonate most strongly in the San Gabriel Valley's 29th Senate District, home to Republican conservative Richard Mountjoy, who cannot run again because of term limits. Assemblyman Bob Margett (R-Arcadia) is in a tight race against Democrat Richard Melendez, a West Covina councilman and Los Angeles police officer. Libertarian Leland Faegre is also running.

Democrats smell victory in the once solidly Republican district that stretches from Sierra Madre to West Covina and down through Whittier to La Mirada. The 29th is now evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

"It's going to be a slugfest out there," predicted Alan Hoffenblum, a Republican analyst and editor of the Target Book who has been monitoring local elections.

"Because of the increased Latino voter registration in those areas, the districts we used to consider 'safe Republican' now only lean Republican and the ones that leaned Republican are not leaning that way anymore," Hoffenblum said.

Melendez is a moderate Democrat (and former Republican) whose agenda includes creating a statewide after-school program to deter juvenile crime. He received a $1-million boost in October from state Democratic leaders after polls showed that race neck and neck.

Margett, who pushes education and tougher juvenile crime measures, has avoided televised debates. He has campaigned heavily, however, in swing areas such as Walnut, West Covina and La Mirada, raising close to $1 million.

Democrat Sally Havice, 63, seeks to keep her 56th Assembly District--encompassing Downey, Cerritos, Lakewood and Bellflower. Traditionally Republican before Havice won the seat in 1996, the area has seen close contests since then despite a growing Latino vote that has given Democrats a 17-point advantage.

Republican Cerritos Mayor Grace Hu, 55, presents a strong challenge, pushing tough-on-crime and health care reform measures while attempting to cross over to Latino voters. A self-made millionaire who owns a real estate firm and mortgage company, Hu lent her campaign nearly half of its $600,000, securing much of the rest from the area's thriving Asian community.

Havice casts herself as a moderate Democrat willing to take on her party's extreme left wing. Last year, she successfully fought to preserve the Los Angeles River flood basin's concrete walls--from Downey to Long Beach--in the face of Democratic environmentalists' efforts to re-landscape that corridor.

In the port areas of Long Beach and the South Bay, Democratic incumbent Alan Lowenthal, 57, fights to keep his 54th Assembly seat against Los Angeles Councilman Rudy Svorinich, 40.

The deciding votes there may lie in Svorinich's hometown of San Pedro, a union-friendly area. Svorinich casts Lowenthal as being out of touch with the moderate district. He advocates health care reforms and a gun violence measure that mandates a 10- to 30-year sentence for anyone caught committing a crime with a gun.

Lowenthal, a former Long Beach councilman, runs on a record that includes helping to improve storm water diversion and cleanup of the Los Angeles River, eliminating a 50-cent toll on the Vincent Thomas Bridge and expediting the harbor-side covering of petroleum coke piles.

One of the most expensive contests is between Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena) and South Pasadena City Councilman Paul Zee for the 21st Senate District seat being vacated by Adam Schiff, who is running for Congress.

Scott has raised nearly $2 million, about twice the amount raised by the Republican Zee. The former president of Pasadena City College, Scott pledges to improve school teachers' performance, a large concern in the district with a slight Democratic edge that includes parts of Sun Valley, Sunland-Tujunga, Glendale, Burbank, South Pasadena and San Marino. Zee, a businessman, said his priority also will be education. Libertarian Bob New is also a candidate.

In the 43rd Assembly District, Democratic attorney Dario Frommer faces Republican attorney Craig Missakian in a battle likely to cost a combined $2 million. The district, which leans Democrat, includes parts of Glendale, Burbank, Toluca Lake, Los Feliz, Silver Lake and east Hollywood.

Frommer, a Los Feliz resident, is a political science teacher and appointments secretary to Gov. Gray Davis. His agenda includes gun control, abortion rights, education reform and streamlining the state bureaucracy.

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