Waters Drew Whites, Blacks to Win Assembly Nomination

Times Staff Writer

In the June 3 primary election in the 54th Assembly District, Edward K. Waters built a commanding lead over his eight Democratic rivals in heavily black precincts in Compton and Willowbrook and captured nearly a third of the vote in predominantly white precincts in Lakewood, Bellflower, Paramount and Long Beach to stitch together his winning margin.

A precinct-by-precinct breakdown made available this week by the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder showed that although the Democratic Assembly candidates spent an estimated $1 million to woo voters, only 29.8% of the 54th District’s voters turned out, compared to 38% who turned out countywide.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1 in the district, which has been represented since 1974 by Assemblyman Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower), who is retiring.

The losers regard Vicencia’s early endorsement of Waters, 30, the son of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), as providing Waters an edge that could never be overcome. They say that the Vicencia endorsement, coupled with a $500,000 campaign war chest and the blessings of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) cemented Waters’ victory.


Rick Taylor, a political consultant who organized Waters’ absentee voter campaign, said, “I think we jumped out early, and it was a campaign that was well designed to make Ed the front-runner.”

In the Nov. 4 general election, Waters will face Republican nominee Paul E. Zeltner, 60, a Lakewood city councilman, and Peace and Freedom Party nominee Vikki Murdock, 37, a temporary postal clerk who lives in Lakewood.

During the primary campaign, white candidates asserted that the black challengers would split the vote in Compton and Willowbrook but would fail to attract support in heavily white areas. Instead, the top three vote-getters--Waters, Willard Murray, 55, an aide to Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D--Compton), and Doris Davis, 50, a former Compton mayor--are black and attracted significant support from white voters.

In Compton, Waters capitalized on his mother’s support and his good organization to pile up a 2,100-vote lead over second-place finisher Murray. Districtwide, Waters overpowered Murray by 1,800 votes and third-place finisher Davis by nearly 3,300 votes.


The county breakdown showed that Waters won only one city--Compton--and the unincorporated area of Willowbrook. Still, he managed to attract 2,215 votes, or 29.3% of his total of 7,559, from predominantly white precincts in Bellflower, Lakewood, Long Beach and Paramount.

Waters said in an interview on Tuesday that the results demonstrated the success of his strategy of “trying to pull votes from wherever we could and that’s why we were (campaigning) all over the district.”

With aggressive campaigning throughout the district, each city was captured by a different candidate. In at least two cities, the strong local ties of a candidate seem to have been decisive.

For example, Ray O’Neal, 48, a white former Bellflower council member, easily won his home turf of Bellflower but still finished fifth overall. Dan Branstine, 31, a white former Lakewood city councilman, handily won Lakewood but finished just behind O’Neal.


They were trailed by Larry Ward, 43, a white Bellflower school board member, who registered the bulk of his votes in Lakewood and Bellflower. He finished seventh. The bottom two finishers were Thomas Cochee, 54, a former Compton police chief, and Marty Israel of Paramount, a self-described consumer activist.

Murray ran a strong race throughout the district and narrowly won the ethnically diverse Paramount. Murray appealed to homeowners by mailing an endorsement letter from Howard Jarvis, who in 1978 led the fight for the property tax-cutting Proposition 13.

One of the major surprises was that Kent Spieller, 34, a white Bellflower lawyer who spent about $220,000, failed to capture any area other than East Long Beach.

Spieller, who finished fourth, said Vicencia’s endorsement letter helped Waters solidify his support early in the campaign. Spieller said his surveys showed “there was a huge undecided vote going into the election and that, combined with a low turnout, made those mass slate mailings (of Murray’s) more effective and accentuated the hard-core of support Ed Waters was able to assemble.”


Spieller contended that the other candidates could not overcome “the overwhelming amount of money” spent by Waters and Murray. Spieller noted that Waters spent an estimated $500,000 and that Murray has estimated spending $150,000, but that Murray’s name also appeared on numerous slate mailers that recommended candidates to district voters.

Until he jumped into the campaign, Waters was an investigator for a federally funded agency aimed at helping relocate people displaced by the Century Freeway. Waters also had served as a coordinator for the Free South Africa Movement, which organized protests against the presence of the South African consulate in Beverly Hills.

The registrar-recorder’s office provided the following turnout breakdown for the district: Bellflower, 32.6%; Compton, 29%; Paramount, 29.7%; Lakewood, 36.3%, and Willowbrook, 34.9%. A separate breakdown for the Long Beach portion of the district was not available.