Scramble for Vicencia's Seat : Assembly Bids Test Democrats' Unity

Times Staff Writer

Even before Friday's filing deadline for the June primary, the Democratic contest in the 54th Assembly District promises to become a dogfight.

When Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower) announced in January that he would not seek reelection, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) launched a search for a "consensus candidate" who would have the Assembly leadership's support.

Brown said late last week that he is still searching and that the Assembly Democratic caucus will not decide whether to endorse any candidate until Friday.

The speaker's aim is to ensure that the district, where Democrats hold more than a 2-to-1 registration edge, remains solidly Democratic. At the same time, Democrats would like to minimize the amount of money spent in the intra-party fight.

Brown said he would also like to find a qualified black candidate to represent the racially mixed district, which covers Compton, Lakewood, Bellflower, Paramount and North Long Beach.

10 Democrats Interested

It is unclear whether his efforts to unify Democrats will succeed.

For one thing, 10 Democratic candidates have declared an interest in the seat. Among them are Edward K. Waters, the son of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who is a key Brown lieutenant; two longtime allies of Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), and several well-known current and former local officials.

In a telephone interview from Washington last week, Dymally said the large primary field and the expected entry of Waters' son into the race pose the most "confusing" and "difficult" dilemma for Democratic leaders he has seen in the past 20 years.

Initially, Dymally agreed to support Kent A. Spieller, a former aide who is now a lawyer living in Bellflower, but he said he later withdrew the endorsement when Brown launched his effort to support one candidate.

Still, Dymally voiced concern that before Brown targets a single candidate for support he must confer with other potential candidates, not merely Assembly Democratic leaders. Without such agreement, he said, "there's no consensus."

Brown, his voice rising, said Dymally "would be well advised to keep his nose in Congress. He'd better be supportive of whoever we come up with if we decide on somebody. Dymally would be crazy to do otherwise. This is our house, not Dymally's house."

Interviewing Candidates

Brown said he is interviewing candidates in the 54th District--as he is doing in open seats elsewhere in the state--to determine their ability as campaigners.

Democratic legislative leaders are also grappling with whether to support a black candidate. One black Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, asserted that a black could not win the general election because only about 20% of the district's voters are black.

Dymally conceded that the 54th is not a black district. It is split by the Long Beach Freeway, with the areas to the west, including Compton, primarily black, and the areas to the east primarily filled with white residents. But he speculated that a black could win.

Speaker Brown went even further to suggest a black candidate could win "easily.'

Indeed, Brown said he would prefer a black nominee "because I would like to see racial minority representation. And as the black speaker of this body one of my responsibilities is to enhance the opportunities for racial minorities and women and, to the extent I can do that, I will."

A handful of black candidates are vying for the nomination.

Among them are Waters, 30, West Coast coordinator for the Free South Africa Movement, which has spearheaded U. S. protests against apartheid; Willard Murray, 55, a Dymally aide now on a leave of absence, and Doris Davis, a former Compton mayor and city clerk, who declined to give her age.

Assemblywoman Steers Clear

Waters could not be reached for comment. But Assemblywoman Waters said she has steered clear of attempts to persuade her colleagues to support her son.

The assemblywoman said she will support her son if he files for the race. But she said she is uncertain what the rest of the Assembly leadership will do.

The assemblywoman said her son has worked in her past campaigns but "not in any high-visibility roles."

Waters said she has not asked her son to enter the race. "He's not a kid," she said. "He makes decisions based on talking to a lot of people and I was one of them."

Dymally said the contest poses a particular problem because Murray, who lost a special Assembly election in Los Angeles a decade ago, and Spieller are close to him.

Murray, who recently moved into the district, takes a leave of absence from his job with Dymally during election years to prepare slate campaign mailers that are sent to voters in South-Central Los Angeles. Murray said that, like Dymally, he endorsed Spieller initially, but he changed his mind and jumped into the contest when he realized that others were running.

Scoffs at Race as Issue

Among those is Davis, a businesswoman, who said she has no plans to withdraw and scoffed at the suggestion that race would enter into the campaign.

"I am the most qualified candidate and it just so happens that I am black," said Davis, who noted that she has begun to organize support throughout the district.

Other candidates, too, are already campaigning. Spieller, 34, has hired Harvey Englander, who successfully engineered Dianne Xitco's Democratic primary victory in the neighboring 63rd Assembly District in 1984, as his chief consultant.

Spieller, who is white, said he has had a long relationship with a number of black politicians, as well as having broad political experience. He has been an aide to Dymally, campaigned for San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and in 1982 managed the first legislative campaign of Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles). And he is regarded by Davis and other lawmakers as a skilled political fund-raiser.

Spieller said he has no plans to drop out of the race "and I wouldn't be receptive to the notion." Spieller explained that he moved to Bellflower last year because he could find an affordable home there, it was close to some of his law clients and relatively near Harbor-UCLA Medical Center where his wife was studying to become a physician.

Community Ties Cited

Another candidate--Larry Ward, a Bellflower Unified School District board member--said he is best suited to fill Vicencia's seat because he has longtime community ties, unlike Spieller, Murray and other candidates who have recently moved into the district.

Ward, 42, who owns a firm that sells business telephone systems, said he has met with Speaker Brown but that the Assembly leadership "is not trying to force anyone out." Still, he observed, if Brown throws his support to a candidate it could cause others to withdraw.

Among the other Democrats who have declared an interest in the race are Bellflower City Councilman Ray O'Neal, who is also running for reelection to the council; Dan Branstine, 31, a former Lakewood city councilman who lost a 1980 bid for the Assembly; Thomas Cochee of Bellflower, who lists himself in his filing as a criminology professor, and Marty Israel and Craig Freis, who have taken out election papers but have provided election officials with no other information.

Besides the Democrats, Paul Zeltner, a Lakewood city councilman, is seeking the Republican nomination and Vikki Murdock of Lakewood has taken out papers to seek the Peace and Freedom nomination.

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