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GOP, Brown Face Crucial Tests in Legislative Races

Times Staff Writers

As legislative campaigns get earnest, the country lawman who arrested mass murderer Juan Corona nearly two decades ago and a Cerritos Republican rebuffed by Gov. George Deukmejian last year are among those fighting to gain seats in the Capitol.

For Sheriff Roy Whiteaker of Sutter County, who received international attention for apprehending Corona, the race in the sprawling 1st District of Northern California is uphill against hard-core conservative Republican Sen. John Doolittle of Rocklin. Corona is still in prison for murdering 25 farm laborers and burying their bodies in peach orchards near Yuba City.

And for Republican challenger Don Knabe, an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana, the task of ousting freshman Democratic Sen. Cecil Green of Norwalk in the 33rd District is formidable in what promises to be the most costly legislative contest this year. Deukmejian talked Knabe out of running for the Senate seat in a 1987 special election, fearing a rough Republican primary that would splinter party unity.

In the Assembly, no single race is expected to be as expensive as the Green-Knabe contest or to involve combatants such as Whiteaker and Doolittle. But the stakes may be higher for Republicans who want to gain control of the Assembly by 1990 and for embattled Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who has been clinging precariously to his leadership post for the last 10 months.

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Must Win Two Seats

Brown, beset by challenges from the dissident Democratic “Gang of Five” who have been trying to oust him, must win at least two additional Democratic seats to ensure retention of his speakership.

It takes 41 votes to be elected Speaker of the 80-member house. Brown counts 39 of the 44 Democrats as loyalists, excluding the “Gang of Five.” There are 35 Assembly Republicans and one vacancy.

To reelect his allies and try to expand their ranks, Brown said he expects to spend “upwards of $5 million. . . . I’m sitting on top of about $2 million now, but I’m spending it every day. I’m confident about retaining my speakership.” All 80 Assembly seats and the 20 odd-numbered district seats in the 40-member Senate are at stake on Nov. 8. The Senate currently has 24 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one independent.

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Adding a new element of uncertainty is the potential fallout from the FBI investigation into suspected political corruption in the Legislature. The investigation has targeted Assembly GOP Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale and three other lawmakers.

They are Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) and Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier). Montoya is not up for reelection.

A Democratic campaign strategist, Richard Ross, is mailing letters to voters in three districts linking GOP candidates to Nolan, described as “the guy from Southern California that the FBI has under investigation.” The letter also says Nolan is accused of using “state computers and state employees and state dollars” to help prepare one Republican candidate’s campaign.

Nolan and Moore have expressed confidence they will be cleared of any illegality when the probe is concluded. Hill refuses to talk about the issue. Each represents a “safe” district and faces relatively minor opposition.

Nolan is opposed in the 41st District by Democrat John Vollbrecht, a Los Angeles builder and self-proclaimed “Baron von Pushcart,” who was fined and sentenced to two years of probation in 1982 for taking and destroying grocery store carts.

Moore represents a lopsidedly Democratic district--73% of the voters are registered as Democrats. Her Republican opponent is businessman Eric Givens.

Hill represents a district that is 47% Republican and 43% Democratic. Ordinarily, that would be considered a “safe” district for the GOP. His Democratic opponent is teacher Terry Lee Perkins of Walnut.

Some Similarities

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In the Senate elections, the contest between Doolittle, who holds the No. 2 GOP leadership post in the upper chamber, and Whiteaker features two strong law-and-order candidates. Doolittle also is a prolific author of legislation to expand testing for AIDS.

Democrats would like nothing better than to unseat Doolittle, a political street fighter who first won office in 1980 by ambushing a complacent Sen. Albert S. Rodda, a longtime Democratic favorite, and went on to vanquish veteran Sen. Ray Johnson (I-Chico) in a 1984 campaign.

But as chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, Doolittle should have no difficulty obtaining campaign funds. Whiteaker, on the other hand, is relying heavily on local partisans and is not expected to receive large sums from Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles).

Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate also are expected to pour big money into the Green-Knabe race, now rated as a tossup by the GOP. Spending could exceed $2 million.

GOP Excitement

“That is the one seat that Democratic incumbents hold that appears to be a strong possibility for a Republican victory, recognizing that the Democrats are going to do all they can to hold it,” said Senate GOP Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno.

He said that, because the Green-Knabe contest seems so close, “I think the presidential race is going to have an impact on that election” and if Republican George Bush beats Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the district, Knabe could benefit from Bush’s coattails.

Democratic tacticians agree the race may be nip-and-tuck but point to what they say are impressive Democratic voter-registration gains made recently in the mostly blue-collar district.

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Knabe pulled out of the 1987 special election battle because Deukmejian and other Republican leaders believed that Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk) had a better chance to win it. But Democrats fashioned a more effective grass-roots organization for Green and he won an upset victory, dealing a serious blow to Republican hopes of assuming control of the Senate before the lawmakers redraw district lines in the early 1990s. Traditionally, the majority party aligns district boundaries to its own advantage for the next decade.

A Long Shot

Democratic strategists, who asked not to be identified, said Democrats will give financial support to San Mateo County Supervisor Tom Nolan, who is running against freshman Sen. Becky Morgan (R-Los Altos Hills) in the 11th District. Both sides consider Nolan a long shot.

And the GOP is expected to respond by sending money to San Francisco attorney Carol Marshall, who is opposing 3rd District Sen. Milton Marks of San Francisco, the Democratic caucus chairman. Marks was a Republican until he changed his registration in 1986.

Two Senate seats will open up in the 25th and 39th districts because of the retirements of Sens. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora) and Jim Ellis (R-San Diego).

The seats are expected to remain in the GOP column and be filled by Assemblymen Bill Leonard (R-Redlands) and Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), respectively.

Brown Zeroes In

In the Assembly, Brown, who has been widely perceived as losing his iron-fisted grip on the house, is seeking to regain his hold by zeroing in on three Republican Assembly seats--two of them held by freshman Paul Zeltner of Lakewood in the 54th District and the veteran Grisham of Norwalk in the 63rd District.

Their Democratic opponents will be, respectively, Willard H. Murray Jr., an aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Los Angeles), and Bob Epple, a Norwalk attorney-educator who beat a “Gang of Five"-backed candidate to win the Democratic primary nomination.

Brown’s third target is the open 72nd District seat that has been vacant since the death of Republican Richard E. Longshore of Santa Ana, who died one day after he won the GOP primary nomination in June.

The Orange County Republican Central Committee picked Curt Pringle, a Garden Grove planning commissioner, as Longshore’s ballot replacement. Deputy Dist. Atty. Christian (Rick) Thierbach is the Democratic candidate, for whom Brown said Democrats will “go heavy and hard” to elect.

GOP Reapportionment Hopes

On the GOP side, Assembly Minority Leader Nolan hopes the Republicans can become the majority party in the Assembly by 1991 for reapportionment purposes, picking up a couple of new seats this year and a few more in the 1990 elections.

Republican leaders in both houses believe that prospects are better for the GOP to wrest control of the Assembly from the Democrats than they are in the Senate.

One top GOP target is the 68th District seat held by Democratic Assemblyman Steve Clute of Riverside. Clute always is considered vulnerable but manages to win anyway. However, two years ago he was reelected by only 1,645 votes. Moreno Valley City Councilman Brian J. Carroll is the GOP candidate.

Another Democrat in the GOP cross hairs is Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg of Sacramento, one of Speaker Brown’s closest allies and the master strategist in charge of electing more Democrats to the Assembly. A three-term veteran, Isenberg is opposed by in the 10th District by Larry Bowler, a deputy sheriff.

Seemingly confident, Isenberg has been running a low-key campaign. But in the last couple of weeks, the apparently well-financed Bowler unleashed a shock wave of television and radio commercials and reams of mailers that depict Isenberg as soft on crime and drugs and as a “professional politician” out of touch with people in his district.


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