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LOS ANGELES COUNTY ELECTIONS

Watson Takes a Modest Lead in House Race

Congress: But the Democrat appears unlikely to win outright, meaning she would face the top vote-getters in the other parties in a runoff.

April 11, 2001|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former state Sen. Diane Watson held a modest lead Tuesday in a field of 18 candidates vying to fill the 32nd Congressional District seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Julian Dixon.

Although Watson outpaced her two nearest Democratic opponents--state Sen. Kevin Murray and City Councilman Nate Holden--she appeared unlikely to win outright.

Under California's blanket primary law, if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held June 5 among the top vote-getters from each party. That would pit Watson against Republican Noel Irwin Hentschel, Green Party candidate Donna J. Warren and Reform Party candidate Ezola Foster.

"I'm looking forward to the real race beginning tomorrow," said Hentschel, a 1998 candidate for lieutenant governor.

Because the district is so heavily Democratic, however, winning the primary is tantamount to election.

The lead boosted spirits in Watson's camp, which had sensed that the race was tightening in recent weeks.

"People have trusted me, and I have not let them down," said Watson, who enjoyed the most name recognition of any candidate. "People have read my name on the ballot for 25 years. They have been born, grown up and gotten married in that time. That means a great deal. When you work your base, you win."

From the start, one of the major hurdles facing all the candidates was time. Unlike in the mayor's race, for which some candidates had been positioning themselves for years, the congressional hopefuls had less than four months to pull together campaigns after Dixon's death in December.

As a result, well-known veteran politicians--such as Watson, Murray and Holden--jumped to the head of the crowded field.

And voter after voter expressed one unifying theme after casting their ballots Tuesday.

"There are just too many people in the race, and there hasn't been enough time to understand the issues," said Alecia Smith as she left a polling place in View Park.

Watson, 67, who served 20 years in the state Senate before retiring in 1998, had to overcome criticism that she was too old to run for Congress, where power is attained through a rigid seniority system.

But campaigning Tuesday with her 91-year-old mother, Watson said her years of experience fighting to improve health coverage, education and consumer protection would be an advantage.

Watson's campaign got off to a slow start because she was out of the country completing an 18-month appointment as U.S. ambassador to Micronesia when Dixon died. Once she returned, however, she declared her candidacy and picked up several key endorsements, including one from EMILY's List, a national organization that helps raise funds for Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights.

But Watson faced tough opposition from Holden, a 14-year veteran of the City Council who had the backing of Mayor Richard Riordan. Murray's campaign took off fast, garnering key labor and political support, including the backing of Reps. Maxine Waters, Howard L. Berman and Henry A. Waxman.

The son of a former assemblyman, Murray, 41, served two terms in the state's lower house before being elected to the Senate in 1998. He said his relative youth and experience made him the best candidate "to follow in Dixon's footsteps."

Murray has been credited with pushing legislation that will bring millions of dollars to urban parks and with sponsoring a bill to combat racial profiling, which some have criticized because it fails to require law enforcement agencies to track the race of motorists stopped by police.

The senator has also been criticized for a 1998 incident in which Los Angeles park police detained him and a prostitute while he was in his state-licensed car. Murray was never arrested, but a report was made and he later apologized to constituents.

Those vying to break into the top tier of candidates included a number of faces new to politics.

Businessman Philip Lowe, who owns an investment firm, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in radio and television advertisements that conveyed the message that the district is in need of economic empowerment.

Other longshots included civil rights attorney Leo James Terrell and Tad Daley, former chief deputy of the Global Security Institute, an organization founded by the late Sen. Alan Cranston.

The race also featured Republicans Hentschel and Las Vegas resident Mike Schaefer, an attorney. Reform Party candidate Foster had run for vice president on the Pat Buchanan ticket. Green Party candidate Warren is an auditor who wants the CIA held accountable for the spread of crack cocaine in urban areas.

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