Local Elections : Ex-Assemblyman Ralph Tries for a Comeback in 54th District

Times Staff Writer

Leon Ralph, who in 1976 unexpectedly gave up his South-Central Los Angeles Assembly seat for a Sacramento-area ministry, is seeking to resurrect his political career and win back a seat in the Legislature.

Once part of the Assembly leadership, Ralph is attempting a comeback in the June 7 Democratic primary in southeast Los Angeles County's 54th Assembly District, where he faces stiff opposition from Willard H. Murray, an aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton).

Few issues have emerged in what has been a low-key campaign between the pair, both regarded as liberal Democrats. To gain an advantage, each side has sought to woo supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Murray and Ralph both maintain that they are best suited to unseat freshman Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner (R-Lakewood), who in 1986 narrowly won in the heavily Democratic district.

Democrats say that as an incumbent, Zeltner will be hard to beat. "We're anticipating a close election in the fall," said Michael Berman, a Westside political consultant who is helping to guide Murray's campaign.

Still, Democratic lawmakers, citing a better than 2-1 registration edge, view the blue-collar district with a high percentage of homeowners as their political turf--crucial to their bid to retain control of the Assembly, where they outnumber Republicans 44 to 36.

In 1986, Zeltner won a 2,800-vote victory against Edward K. Waters, son of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). Edward Waters had survived a spirited nine-way primary with the help of a huge bankroll from his mother and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). Murray finished second.

Zeltner, 62, has no GOP opposition. Republicans maintain that his 1986 victory was not a fluke and signaled a switch in loyalties in the district, which had been represented for 12 years by Democrat Frank Vicencia of Bellflower before he retired in 1986.

Growing Latino Population

Besides heavily black precincts in Compton, Willowbrook and East Compton, which make up an estimated 25% of general election voters, the district includes a growing Latino population around Paramount and predominantly white suburbs of Bellflower, Lakewood and East Long Beach.

After Waters' loss to underdog Zeltner, Democratic lawmakers questioned whether a black candidate such as Waters could capture the district. Murray and Ralph, both black, reject the suggestion.

Brown, who faces a challenge from five rebel Assembly Democrats and seeks to increase the number of Democrats loyal to him, has said publicly that Murray is the best candidate because "he has a better chance of winning" in November. But Brown has stopped short of formally endorsing Murray.

Ralph, who said he supports Brown's speakership, maintains that the Assembly leader still is upset at him for not backing his first unsuccessful bid for Speaker in 1974. Brown scoffs at the suggestion.

Because the district has a high percentage of black voters, each campaign seeks to latch onto Jackson's coattails, although Jackson has not endorsed either candidate. Brown serves as Jackson's national campaign chairman.

Although Murray has not endorsed a presidential candidate, Dymally has mailed a campaign letter to voters on behalf of Murray, saying: "Jesse (Jackson) has proven that we can have greatness in our national leadership. . . . We must demand excellence at every level of government--that's why we need Willard Murray" in the Assembly.

Endorsed Jackson

Ralph has endorsed Jackson and has sent out one mailer that includes a photograph of the presidential contender next to an unattributed quotation boasting that Ralph "is the only official Democratic Party nominee."

The Murray and Ralph campaigns are relying on the mail to deliver their messages to voters. Murray has sent out endorsements from Dymally and Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. Ralph, who mailed a Mother's Day greeting card to women voters, was endorsed by the Democratic Party and has the support of the United Auto Workers, Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Hawthorne) and Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles).

Ralph and Murray have similar backgrounds. They are of the same generation--Murray is 57 and Ralph is 55. Both were active in Young Democrats and campaigned for John F. Kennedy for President in 1960. Both regard Kennedy and Jesse M. Unruh, the late state treasurer and a former Assembly Speaker, among their political heroes.

Elected in 1966

Ralph served as an assistant to Speaker Unruh. In 1966, he was elected to the Assembly and launched his often stormy career. Among other things, he unsuccessfully pushed a bill to permit pari-mutuel wagering at dog tracks in Los Angeles and four other counties.

As chairman of the Legislature's Joint Rules Committee, Ralph negotiated and signed the contract for the restoration of the state Capitol. The pact contained a controversial affirmative action program which required that 20% of all subcontract dollars go to minority businesses.

Ralph, who had preached before he became a legislator, said he "began to feel the call of the ministry again" when he was hospitalized for viral pneumonia and decided to retire in 1976.

He formed an interdenominational church in a Sacramento suburb. He also was a registered lobbyist until 1986, when he moved to Los Angeles to start another branch of the church, which holds services at the Cockatoo Inn in Hawthorne. Recently, he moved to Paramount.

In 1976, Ralph told reporters he could not serve the Lord and his constituents, but Ralph now maintains: "I'm in a different place in my ministry. I had a lot to learn and I've applied myself to that."

For Murray, the campaign is his third attempt at elective office. Both previous efforts failed. His second-place finish in 1986, Murray said, gives him "a boost politically. It makes me a more viable candidate. There's some leftover name recognition."

Murray, once an aide to former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, is known in political circles for his election year slate cards mailed to thousands of voters in South-Central Los Angeles urging people to support candidates of his United Democratic Campaign Committee. Since 1980, he has served as an aide to Dymally, but has taken a leave of absence to campaign.

Murray estimates that he could spend about $200,000 and Ralph hopes to spend about $180,000 in his comeback. But Ralph said that his fund raising--especially from lobbyists-- has been hampered because of Brown's opposition to him.

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