Assemblyman Wayne Grisham, a 17-year political veteran, was taught a lesson Tuesday by a new kid on the block--Democratic upstart Cecil N. Green, who nearly pulled off a major upset in the special 33rd state Senate election.
The Norwalk Republican, a man not accustomed to finishing second, did just that Tuesday night and in the process nearly lost the race many predicted at the outset he would win easily. Late on election night, a dejected and shaken Grisham acknowledged that his strategy of relying mostly on telephones and slick mailers to win votes in the largely suburban, blue-collar district that spills across two counties had failed, throwing him into a May 12 runoff with Green and two others.
The tactic, a Grisham trademark, had been privately criticized by GOP leaders in the campaign's closing days, and explains why party officials bused in hundreds of precinct walkers from around the state on election day. But it was not enough.
"I've learned a lesson in this race," the 64-year-old Grisham said. " . . . In a special election, the most important ingredient is walking the streets. I've been in the business long enough to realize that. Obviously, I've got to get out more."
Worked Malls, Neighborhoods
His chief opponent, Green, apparently succeeded where Grisham fell short. The 63-year-old Democrat and his army of supporters worked the shopping malls and neighborhoods of tract homes from the beginning, ringing doorbells and shaking hands. Green described it as a "people-to-people" push to sell the relatively unknown Norwalk councilman.
In the end, Green not only forced a runoff, but he nearly pulled off a upset, falling just 1,646 votes short of winning outright an election that had attracted statewide attention from the leadership of both parties.
"Nobody gave us a chance a few months ago. Now look where we are," said Larry Morse, Green's press secretary. "This is an upset, that's what it is. The Republicans must be very upset tonight. . . ."
Green finished with 27,225 votes or 47.1% of the total 57,741 cast, while Grisham had 24,767 votes or 42.9%, according to the final, unofficial results. Six other candidates divided the remaining ballots, but none tallied more than 2.8% of the vote.
Only 20.2% of the district's 285,000 voters in northwest Orange County and southeast Los Angeles County went to the polls.
About 75% of the district is in Los Angeles County, where Green beat Grisham by 8%. Grisham, who counted on winning 60% of the vote in Orange County, fell far short of that goal, winning there by less than 100 votes.
Because none of the candidates received more than 50% of the ballots cast, the top vote-getters in each party are in the runoff. Besides Grisham and Green, Libertarian Lee Connelly, 34, of Buena Park and Peace and Freedom party candidate Ed Evans, 39, of Cypress will be on the May 12 ballot.
Grisham told supporters at a Downey country club late Tuesday that he was unable to overcome the Democrats' big spending, edge in voter registration, and a series of last-minute pro-Green mailers that painted the two-term Assemblyman as an ineffective legislator and a womanizer.
Across the district at a church meeting hall in Norwalk, a jubilant Green told supporters the Republicans had not taken his candidacy seriously, a mistake that he hopes they make again in May. "Look what overconfidence did to them tonight," he said.
Party Tried to Retain Seat
It was an expensive primary and Green spent the most, about $750,000, campaign aides said. Much of it was in the form of staff and equipment shipped south from Sacramento Democrats to help Green and the party hold onto the seat vacated by former Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress), who was elected to the State Board of Equalization in November.
Grisham also was well-financed, spending close to $500,000, according to campaign Chairman Dale Hardeman.
Following the election, leaders of both parties said they would intensify efforts to win the seat in the runoff. The election is viewed in Sacramento as a key skirmish in the fight for control of the Senate in the early 1990s, when legislative reapportionment will take place. The Democrats now maintain a 23-15 edge.
"We would have loved to win this thing outright," said state Sen. James W. Nielsen (R-Rohnert Park), the senate's minority floor leader. "It would have saved us all a couple of months of hard work. But am I discouraged? Absolutely not. This is a Democratic district and we had a strong showing tonight."
Banked on Legislative Record
While party registration in the district favors the Democrats, its residents are considered conservative, the main reason many believed Grisham, a former congressman, would do well here. A strong supporter of both the Reagan and Deukmejian administrations, Grisham banked on his legislative experience and name recognition to carry him. But some, like Republican State Party Chairman Robert Naylor, said the GOP may have been overconfident and, as a result, caught short.
"I think there was a tendency to say, 'Let's work real hard,' but in our hearts we know that Wayne will win," said Naylor, who was at Grisham's side when it became clear that Green had forced a runoff. "Maybe we took something for granted."
Costly Runoff Seen
Political observers say the runoff winner may have to spend close to $1 million, one reason the Republicans are betting Grisham will still win.
"(Green's) strategy from the start was do whatever was necessary to keep Wayne under 50%," said Tony Marsh, a Sacramento-based political consultant who engineered Grisham's campaign. "Their only chance was to force a runoff. . . . But I don't think they have the money for Round 2."
Green disagreed. "That's not true at all. . . . When you've got the dollars and the people together, like we do, you have a winning candidate, and that's me. . . . It will probably cost a million dollars, but I'm not a bit concerned."
Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) agreed, saying:
"We will match and surpass anything the Republicans will throw at us. They really haven't seen what we can do yet. . . . They thought they could win it all in one night and Cecil Green came from way behind to finish in front. And the momentum will continue with us into the runoff."
Both candidates mounted impressive last-minute voter drives on election day.
Green supporters began hanging get-out-the-vote flyers on doors well before dawn Tuesday. Several cars and vans with loudspeakers drove through the district playing tape-recorded messages from Sen. Alan Cranston and other leading Democrats urging people to vote for Green. At Green's Norwalk headquarters, campaign workers wore green bowlers, handed out shamrocks and talked of how Green would pull off a St. Patrick's Day surprise.
Meanwhile, Grisham's aides set up seven mini-campaign offices in the district to deploy several hundred precinct walkers who began arriving Monday from as far away as San Francisco, Bakersfield and San Diego. Marsh said others used phones in more than 30 real estate and insurance offices to reach voters. Grisham, a former real estate broker, said he was "awed" by the effort. "Never in my political career have I seen such an effort," he said.
Both candidates said they hope to avoid the bitter, personal attacks that captured headlines in the final days of the race. Green accused Grisham of distorting and misrepresenting his 18-year record in politics in a series of mailers, while Grisham said he was deeply hurt about allegations of sexual advances toward one of his secretaries.
"Everybody in the campaign wants to step back a bit," Marsh said. "This thing really got out of control. Perhaps we've got to spend more time talking about Wayne and his record. . . . But if we find that their charges hurt us, we may be forced to try and set the record straight."