Terry Lee Perkins, Democratic challenger in the 52nd Assembly District, is in a situation that most politicians would relish.
Her opponent, incumbent Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), is one of five state lawmakers targeted in an FBI investigation into allegations of political corruption. The popular 3-term assemblyman refuses to speak publicly about the inquiry and is generally running a low-profile campaign.
But Perkins, an elementary school teacher from Walnut, has been reluctant to make an issue of the FBI investigation, frustrating some local Democrats who believe she is passing up her best shot at upsetting Hill in the Nov. 8 election.
"I don't like campaigns like the ones that are going on now that are attacking," said Perkins, who is running for office for the first time. "I think you should be telling people what you believe in and what you think is right, instead of just slandering the other person."
Hill is one of the targets of an FBI sting operation aimed at uncovering extortion and bribery at the state Capitol. No charges have been filed, and sources said indictments will probably not be returned before Nov. 8.
The investigation involved federal agents creating fake companies, sponsoring bills and paying money to lawmakers. Hill is suspected of receiving a $2,500 honorarium from an agent posing as a businessman, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
Perkins' campaign manager, Milton S. Kagan, is already anticipating that charges will be filed against Hill.
"We expect that there's a good possibility that when the indictment comes down there will be a resignation in the district," Kagan said. "At that time, we think we'll have a real good shot at it (Hill's seat)."
Under state law, however, a legislator could continue to hold office until convicted.
The state Democratic Party apparently also views an indictment as pivotal. At the end of August, Perkins and Kagan were summoned to Sacramento by Sandy Polka of Ross Consultants, a Sacramento political consulting firm with close ties to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
"If the indictment came down (before the election), they wanted to be involved in the campaign, and if it didn't they told me I couldn't win," Perkins said.
Kagan is disgusted that Ross Consultants failed to follow through on a promise to reimburse Perkins for $700 in plane fares for the Sacramento trip.
"They refuse to return my phone calls," Kagan said. "That $700 could have bought 500 yard signs."
Polka said she had no comment on the Hill-Perkins race.
Comment on Tickets Refused
When asked about the plane tickets, Polka said, "I don't want to talk about it" and referred further questions to company president Richard Ross, who did not return telephone calls.
Perkins sometimes mentions the FBI investigation when campaigning and discusses the matter if asked. But she refuses to put out a mailer linking Hill with political corruption.
"It's different if we're talking about it than putting it in a hit piece," Perkins said.
Some Democrats, such as Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon of Alhambra, whose 59th district includes part of Whittier, praised Perkins' strategy: "Hit campaigns are the way the game is played as long as people continue to play that way. It's refreshing to have somebody who, regardless of the consequences, isn't willing to stoop to that level."
Perkins is concentrating on such issues as education reform, cleaning up the environment and statewide health insurance. She has raised about $10,000, which she is mostly spending on campaign signs and mailers.
A teacher for 22 years, Perkins, 45, strongly backs Proposition 98, the ballot measure that promises consistent funding for public schools and community colleges, smaller class sizes and higher pay for teachers.
Perkins said she has worked as a volunteer in Democratic campaigns for 20 years and last year was a paid member of the campaign of state Sen. Cecil N. Green (D-Norwalk). She is also active in the California Teachers Assn. and has been chairwoman of the group's Southeast Los Angeles County political action committee. Perkins' largest campaign contribution was $500, from the CTA.
Hill has amassed a campaign chest of about $275,000, including donations from land developers, but he thus far has waged a low-visibility campaign, keeping his campaign office open only part-time, posting campaign signs and sending out mailers.
His largest campaign contributions are $5,000 from the Sunrise Co., the developers of Palm Desert; $5,000 from the Irvine Co. and $4,000 from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee.
Hill has avoided candidate forums, limiting his appearances to friendly community events such as parades, golf tournaments and Lion's Club meetings. He has refused to speak to the news media since being implicated in the FBI investigation earlier this year.
Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk), a political ally, offered an explanation for Hill's silence: "We talked about that. He said, 'Gee whiz, what am I going to say? If I say no comment, how will that look? If I try to explain what happened, there's not enough room to print my explanation. I think I'm better off not talking.' And I think he's right."
Hill's voting record is conservative--California Journal gave him a 97% conservative rating on 45 key issues in 1988.
But the 52nd Assembly District is conservative too. Despite a fairly even voter registration--47% Republican, 44% Democrat--the district voted overwhelmingly to re-elect President Reagan, favored a 1984 ballot measure to make English the state's official language and opposed a 1982 gun-control measure. The district includes parts of Whittier and West Covina and all of Walnut, Rowland Heights, La Mirada, La Habra Heights, Hacienda Heights and Diamond Bar.
Elected With 69.1%
In 1986, Hill won with 69.1% of the vote. He recorded similar margins of victory in two previous elections.
Perkins said Hill has focused too much on Whittier, neglecting the district's unincorporated outlying areas, where developers have built hundreds of houses in the last few years. "There's a whole huge area out there, and nothing's been provided concerning services," she said.
However, many community leaders in the outlying areas are backing Hill.
"His support has been very broad, and I'm very pleased with what he's done," said Jean Good, mayor pro tem of La Habra Heights. "He's very sincere in his attempt to represent a conservative community in the Assembly."
Dean Anderson, a Roland Unified school board member, said Hill is also well liked in Rowland Heights. "Nobody is chipping away on the raid on his office," he said about the FBI inquest. "I think he's doing a great job."
In Whittier, Hill is also praised by community and business leaders, particularly for his help in pushing the $91 million earthquake relief package through a special session of the Legislature in November, 1987.
"Frank was extremely supportive in the earthquake recovery effort," said Jerrold S. Perisho, president of the Whittier Area Chamber of Commerce. "Beyond that, Frank for years has been receptive to phone calls the chamber has made to him to express concerns. . . . I think he's done an excellent job."
Hill introduced a bill that allowed fire and earthquake victims to write off their losses against state income taxes for up to five years. The bill also provided $2.5 million in grants to nonprofit agencies damaged in the earthquake, a measure that helped the Whittier YMCA, Rio Hondo chapter of the American Red Cross and the Whittier Boys and Girls Club.
According to Calderon, who carried much of the earthquake relief legislation, Hill served as the liaison between lawmakers and Gov. George Deukmejian. Hill is a key adviser to Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), who has also been implicated in the FBI investigation.
"Frank did help a lot" with the earthquake legislation, Calderon said.
However, officials of the Whittier City School District complained that Hill was of little help several months after the earthquake, when the district sought $214,000 from the state to cope with a 150-student enrollment decline after the earthquake. Whittier City suffered $611,000 in earthquake damage, more than any other district in the state.
District officials asked Hill to sponsor that legislation, but he refused, Whittier City school board member Mila Corral said.
"His response was that he had used up all his favors with the governor," Corral said.