California Elections : Orange County Race Is Political Slugfest : Both Parties Pour Money Into Fight for Pivotal Assembly District

Times Staff Writer

In the neighborhoods around Anaheim Stadium, there is a political battle raging that rivals the intensity of the Angels-Red Sox collision last weekend, as the Republican Party struggles to wrest away the Democrats' last legislative seat in Orange County.

The 72nd Assembly District contest between Republican Richard E. Longshore, a real estate broker, and Democrat Daniel E. Griset, Santa Ana's mayor and an insurance broker, is considered one of the most important Assembly races in the state by the Assembly GOP Caucus in Sacramento. It also is one of 11 target races getting an infusion of extra money and on-site staffing by Assembly Democrats.

Mandatory campaign finance reports show that as of Sept. 30, Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) had funneled more than $35,000 in money and services to Longshore, who is making his third consecutive run in the district. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) has put more than $151,000--in cash, campaign materials and staff support--into the Democrats' effort to save the seat.

Both sides have produced slick mailers, and there has been a lot of door-to-door campaigning. But Griset has surprised the Republicans with a new tactic: block cleanup parties, in which weedy, trash-strewn lots and flood control channels have been tidied with supplies donated by private companies.

The cleanups captured positive publicity and at least some support among Republican households. Longshore and GOP leaders say voters are sophisticated enough to know that the cleanups are merely a campaign gimmick. But they seem worried.

A Longshore campaign aide said, "It's different enough to cause unpredictability, and that leaves an uncomfortable feeling."

Griset says the cleanups have helped give him an eight-point edge in polls commissioned by his campaign, but Longshore's surveys give him a similar margin over Griset.

The seat, which is open, is of immense practical and symbolic importance to both parties.

The incumbent, six-term Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), is seeking the 38th Congressional District seat held by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove). Robinson waged a $1-million effort to keep the seat in 1984, outspent Longshore more than 3 to 1--and won by only 256 votes.

With the Republicans trying to reduce the Democrats' 47-33 edge in the Assembly, the district "is one of the premier battlegrounds in the state in terms of a district shifting hands," said Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange), statewide campaign manager for the Assembly GOP Caucus. Democratic registration in the district has slipped to 50.5% from 54% just two years ago after an aggressive Republican registration effort. GOP registration, meanwhile, has risen to nearly 40%, and because Republicans tend to be more conscientious about voting, the numbers mean the district is vulnerable to capture by the GOP.

Highly Significant

"If we can't do it here, surrounded by heavily conservative, Republican-dominated districts in Orange County, then we're going to have a lot of trouble doing it anywhere else," a key GOP strategist said.

"It's one of our key races because we have an outstanding candidate in Dan Griset," counters Richard Ross, one of Brown's top lieutenants. "In part, we put our money where we have the best candidates. Mr. Longshore is a loser. He has been a (two-time) loser."

The district is the most urban in Orange County. Including Stanton and parts of Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Westminster, it has the county's highest concentration of minority members (31%), with an expanding Asian community that started with resettled refugees 13 years ago in an area known as Little Saigon. About 30,000 of the district's residents live in poverty, yet it is expected to account for half of the county's new jobs in the next two decades.

Important Area

The Democrats see this as important turf to defend and as a potential breeding ground for rising political figures.

Griset is seen as such a serious contender for higher office that Republicans maneuvered to oust him from membership on two key regional planning organizations--the Orange County Transit District and the Orange County Transportation Commission--last year, even though the posts were nonpartisan. Yorba Linda Councilman Henry Wedaa charged at the time that Griset was using the nonpartisan positions to build a power base and added, "We certainly don't need ultra-liberal Democrats like Griset in our Legislature."

The son of a former Santa Ana mayor, Griset comes from a century-old pioneer Santa Ana family steeped in Orange County Republican politics. As the family's renegade Democrat, Griset has served since 1979 on the council. He is credited with helping bring new transit facilities and downtown redevelopment efforts to a city of about 225,000 people, second in size in Orange County only to Anaheim.

Stormy Reign as Mayor

However, Griset has had a stormy tenure as mayor, embroiling himself in efforts to bring a new hotel and sports complex to a neighborhood that didn't want them and becoming involved in behind-the-scenes opposition to a controversial ballot measure that would have restructured city government.

He also has come under attack from a vociferous faction of Latino activists who claim he has not done enough to help Latinos through neighborhood programs and appointments to city commissions.

But Griset brushes such controversies aside, saying they are the product of his "pro-active" style.

Since 36% of the district's voters live in Santa Ana, Griset has some built-in name recognition. But Republicans counter that Longshore is better known elsewhere in the district because he has been on the ballot there in the last two elections.

Veterans Board Chairman

Longshore is chairman of the state Veterans Board, to which he was appointed last year by Gov. George Deukmejian. Much of Longshore's support comes from local churches and is deeply rooted in anti-abortion politics.

Longshore's current campaign is much like his 1984 effort: mailers containing slashing attacks on his opponent. Such mail has attempted to link Griset to the philosophy of "liberal, big-spending Willie Brown," Griset's votes to raise Santa Ana's utility fees and his support of an unsuccessful 1984 countywide sales tax measure to aid transit projects. It also has mentioned his no-contest plea to a misdemeanor charge in a 1974 voter registration case in which he and several other supporters of Jerry Patterson, the Democratic congressman defeated by Dornan two years ago, allegedly registered to vote in the 38th Congressional District while living outside its boundaries.

Longshore also has campaigned heavily on his support for the death penalty and his role as a local leader of the campaign to unseat California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

Favors Death Penalty

Griset portrays himself as "the kind of Democrat who believes in the death penalty" and assures residents of the district that he will personally vote against Bird's reconfirmation.

Despite their differences, Longshore and Griset agree that the race will be decided more by hard work than by social and economic issues. Both men have tried to maximize face-to-face contact with voters.

"You've got my vote for just being here," a Garden Grove man told Longshore as he walked door to door last week.

"I know you--you're the man who sponsored the cleanup at the vacant lot around the corner," an Anaheim woman told Griset at her front door. "I'm impressed," she added as she signed a written agreement to allow the later use of a Griset lawn sign. "I've lived here for 30 years, and this is the first time I've been visited by a mayor."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 1986 Orange County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 1 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction Due to a copy-editing error, The Times Tuesday mistakenly reported that Richard Longshore, the Republican candidate in the 72nd state Assembly District race, had pleaded "no contest" in a 1974 voter registration fraud case. In fact, the plea was entered by Democrat Dan Griset, the mayor of Santa Ana, who is opposing Longshore.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World