Showdown With a GOP Firebrand Builds in 38th District : Democrat Yudelson Battles His Obscurity, Seeks 'Forced Errors'

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Jerry Yudelson recently stepped up to the microphone at the Garden Grove Senior Citizens Center and announced to more than 50 seniors nibbling on salads and sandwiches that if their current congressman, Robert K. Dornan, had his way, they would not have the food they were eating.

Yudelson, a Santa Ana business consultant, accused the fiery, two-term GOP incumbent of voting against more money for senior meal programs, while Dornan's staff portrays the congressman as "real good on senior issues."

"I'd call that hypocrisy," Yudelson, a Democrat, told his audience. "If you can't trust your congressman to be straight with you, then you ought to look for another congressman."

Then came the hard sell. Yudelson, 44, quoted his mother: "She said that if you can't feed people in this life, you aren't doing much service to anyone."

"You've got my vote," said several seniors seated around the lunch tables.

But then others mumbled: "Can you believe that? Who is this young man?"

Those questions highlight key problems in Yudelson's uphill struggle to defeat a nationally known firebrand: Disbelief about Dornan's votes against Social Security cost-of-living increases and about similar social issues, plus Yudelson's own relative obscurity.

Political observers say although an election upset is unlikely, Yudelson's campaign is organized and positioned well to capitalize on mistakes by Dornan--"forced errors," as Yudelson describes them.

Recent controversies surrounding Dornan have been damaging, says Harvey Englander, a veteran Newport Beach-based political consultant.

'All the Reagan Democrats'

Still, Englander said Yudelson "would have to get all the Reagan Democrats and then some" to win, "and I just don't see that happening in that district."

Englander was referring to polls conducted earlier this year showing that almost any Republican legislative candidate would defeat almost any Democrat in the area encompassed by central Orange County's 38th Congressional District, which also includes Cerritos.

But Yudelson is decidedly upbeat, citing a new 50%-to-41% Democratic registration advantage and a strong, overlapping Dukakis for President campaign in the district. Specially targeted state Senate and Assembly campaigns also overlap.

He says that his campaign signs will go up in a few days and that his campaign mail will start landing in voters' mailboxes in a week or two. Without such mail, Yudelson's effort would be a principled but politically non-threatening crusade similar to those of Peace and Freedom Party nominee Frank German of Long Beach, a retired teacher, and Libertarian Bruce McKay of Garden Grove, an engineer and scientist.

Yudelson's first mail brochure is designed to answer that nagging question, who is Jerry Yudelson? It does not attack Dornan.

Like his view that it won't take $1 million to knock off Dornan--an incumbent who frequently appears on TV and has a national mailing list of conservative supporters--Yudelson is unconventional.

A longtime activist on environmental issues, Yudelson helped organize Earth Day in 1970, at a time when national concern about ecology was still a gleam in the eyes of naturalists and hard-core members of such groups as the Sierra Club.

In 1978, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Yudelson to head SolarCal, an agency created to help develop California's solar energy industry. Later, he marketed solar energy equipment and started several high-technology "start-up" companies. And he joined with other environmentalists in lobbying for extension of solar energy tax credits.

Background in Small Business

"I'm a veteran of the political wars in Sacramento and know how to get votes for legislation," Yudelson said. "And my background in starting small businesses is better than most people in public office."

Yudelson compares himself to former Republican Congressman Ed Zschau, who appealed to high-tech entrepreneurs in a failed U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Alan Cranston in 1986.

"I can discuss issues with these guys without a translator," Yudelson said.

A graduate of Van Nuys High School, where he was captain of the basketball team and a class valedictorian, Yudelson has a bachelor of science degree from Caltech and a master of science degree in engineering from Harvard University. He also studied environmental issues for two years at UC Santa Cruz.

Now a business consultant, Yudelson says he and his wife moved to Orange County three years ago from Oakland because "this is where high-tech entrepreneurism is happening."

With Dornan's commitment to high-tech projects such as President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative never in doubt, Yudelson has managed to attract labor support by assuring the unions that represent aerospace workers that he is on their side when it comes to "lunch box, bread-and-butter" issues such as SDI.

Labeled a "Bay Area liberal" by Brian Bennett, Dornan's press secretary, Yudelson has deliberately distanced himself from such groups as the Alliance for Survival, which opposes SDI spending and which have backed Dornan's Democratic rivals in the past.

Having raised about $175,000 so far, mostly through campaign dinners, lunches and a $40,000 loan from himself to his campaign, Yudelson has paid for a headquarters operation, hired a campaign manager and consultants and attracted dozens of volunteers. He also hopes to walk precincts with some Hollywood celebrities.

Still, he has not yet been able to persuade the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to target the district with extra help and money, and is having trouble persuading "heavy hitters" in the county to contribute.

With public opinion surveys showing that crime and drugs are major issues in the district, Yudelson says he favors an end to U.S. aid to governments that fail to stop drug traffickers; increased efforts to intercept drug shipments; appointment of an anti-drug czar, and mandatory drug testing for workers in life-endangering professions, such as pilots and bus drivers.

He says he also supports budget increases for local police agencies, appointment of more federal judges to hear drug cases and the death penalty for drug kingpins tied to drug-related murders.

Yudelson attacks Dornan's support for school tuition vouchers, which he believes will cripple public education's financial stability. He also criticizes Dornan's votes against more money for education programs.

Yudelson also favors humanitarian aid but not military assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras.

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