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Side issues in focus for Wright, Dymally in 25th District race

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When former Assemblyman Roderick "Rod" Wright talks about his upcoming election bout against Assemblyman Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), he sometimes refers to a classic 1980 boxing match -- the one in which a younger Larry Holmes defeated legendary champion Muhammad Ali.

"If you're Larry Holmes, you don't feel good about that fight," Wright said. "I would love to be in the [state] Senate being confirmed along with Mervyn Dymally, but that's not going to happen."

The two men are among four Democratic candidates competing to become state senator in the 25th District, which stretches from Inglewood and Los Angeles to Compton, Long Beach and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

At 55, Wright sees himself as much more energetic than his 82-year-old adversary.

But Dymally, who is campaigning in Los Angeles and jets to Sacramento for Assembly business, refuses to be counted out, especially on the basis of age -- a subject rarely mentioned. Dymally says: "Age is an asset in the black community. The average black voter is a woman over 55."

In Tuesday's primary to replace state Sen. Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood), who is termed out, neither Dymally nor Wright, the leading Democrats, is pulling punches.

Wright accuses Dymally of kowtowing to the state Democratic party leadership.

Dymally has accused Wright of selling out to business interests. He calls his opponent a gun advocate and a Democrat in Republican clothing.

Dymally first served in the Assembly from 1962 to 1966, and became the first black state senator in 1966, the first and only black lieutenant governor, and a six-term congressman. After 10 years of retirement, he returned to the Assembly in 2002, where he now chairs the Health Committee. If elected, he says, he plans to serve one four-year term in the state Senate and then retire.

Wright doesn't take such promises seriously. Since being termed out of the Assembly in 2002, he has found few opportunities for political advancement in South Los Angeles, where an aging elected leadership holds the reins of power.

In the Assembly, Wright served as chairman of the Committee on Utilities and Commerce and was recognized for his work in public safety, education, energy and utilities, small business, family law and consumer privacy. A former deputy to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Wright ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1991 and 2003. He is now a political consultant.

On most issues, the candidates are not far apart. They both want to restore Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in Willowbrook, formerly King/Drew Medical Center, to full operation and return Compton Community College to a fully accredited independent institution of higher learning.

They each own large homes in upscale neighborhoods outside the 25th District, and smaller ones inside the district that they list as official residences.

Wright has a house in Baldwin Hills on a street with a view of downtown Los Angeles, but he lists his official residence as a house, with four apartment units, he owns in Inglewood.

"It wasn't like I switched last week to be eligible," Wright said. "I've owned the house for years. It's a kind of nonissue."

Dymally's official residence is a condominium in Compton, but he also keeps a house in Ladera Heights, registered in his wife's name.

He has owned his properties for decades.

"My legal residence is the condo," he said, adding that he was once investigated on the matter, but the case was closed.

Where the two have clashed is over the issue of firearms.

"I don't know any black in the country who is as pro-NRA as Rod Wright," said Dymally, a longtime liberal who has supported gun control legislation, speaking of the National Rifle Assn. "It's ridiculous, given the high crime rate in one part of the district and the fear of guns in the other."

Wright has long been known as an advocate of gun ownership and has been critical of some gun control laws because they are usually passed "against the people who obey the law," he once said.

Sometimes, he says, his views are misinterpreted.

"My position on guns is identical to the positions of Obama and Hillary," he said, referring to Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I support the 2nd Amendment that says that people in America can have guns. Why do I get my chops busted and they don't?"

Campaign expenditures filed by the two candidates show that the Dymally campaign has spent about $340,000 over the last 60 days -- more than twice as much as Wright. Both candidates lent thousands of dollars to their campaigns. But in the months leading up to the race, businesses have pumped more than $900,000 for research, polling and mailers into independent expenditures designed to promote Wright.

Wright's effort has been supported by the real estate, health and tobacco industries. The largest donation to his campaign came from JobsPac, a business-backed political action committee with ties to the California Chamber of Commerce. With Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature, the state chamber donated most of its campaign money to elect Democrats who are considered moderate.

Dymally said that the large outlay of financial support for Wright's campaign was evidence that his opponent is in the pocket of special interests.

Wright counters that he has no control over what businesses do independently of his campaign and adds that many of the groups that donated to his cause also donated to Dymally's.

"If they give money to me, I'm beholden to them, but if they donate to Merv, that's good government," Wright said. "That's hypocritical."

Both candidates have strong endorsements from politicians throughout the state. Wright has the support of Waters and strong backing from other legislators as well as eight Democratic mayors in the district, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Dymally has strong support from labor and the backing of Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach).

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass praised Dymally for his "tireless work on behalf of health initiatives, school safety and other legislation that benefits his constituents and others throughout the state."

Also on the ballot in the June 3 primary election are Democrats Kevin Biggers, who once ran former Gov. Gray Davis' Inland Empire office, and Donald Dear, a retired teacher and president of the West Basin Municipal Water District. Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher and the only Republican in the race, will face the winner of the Democratic contest in the general election in November.

john.mitchell@latimes.com

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