This fall, Republican Donald R. Knabe is getting what he had hoped for more than a year ago, a political fight with Democrat Cecil N. Green for the 33rd District Senate seat. Unfortunately for Knabe, this year’s contest is not as it would have been then, when both were local councilmen aspiring to state office.
Green is now a well-financed Senate incumbent who only last year won 54% of the district’s vote in a special election. He has, if anything, become a more formidable opponent--a state legislator who may not have dazzled in his first year, but who did not fizzle in any major way, either.
“I think (Knabe) has everything going for him except the race he chose to run in,” said a Southeast-area Democrat, agreeing with many political observers that it will not be easy to dislodge Green.
A former Cerritos councilman who is Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana’s chief of staff, Knabe withdrew from the special election primary last year in deference to Republican leaders, who did not want a divisive primary battle on their hands. The GOP primary nomination went to Assemblyman Wayne Grisham of Norwalk, who was subsequently trounced by Green, then a Norwalk councilman.
“It’s a decision I regret very much,” Knabe says of his primary retreat, recalling that at the time, he was concerned he would have difficulty raising money without the backing of state party leaders.
This year he does not have that worry. After lining up support in Sacramento, Knabe encountered only token opposition in last spring’s primary. Gov. George Deukmejian last month put in an appearance at a fund-raising dinner for Knabe at Los Angeles’ Biltmore hotel. As of the end of September, the state Republican Party had spent about $110,865 on mailers for Knabe, and a political action committee controlled by GOP state senators has so far contributed $134,000 to his campaign.
Dana has chipped in $7,500 and says he intends to give more. Development and real estate interests, a mainstay of Dana’s campaign treasury, are also contributing liberally to Knabe.
Knabe predicts he will spend about $750,000 on his election effort. But with both parties perceiving the district as crucial in the reapportionment battles of 1990, many political insiders expect the two combatants to each spend $1 million in the race. Such campaign bills are already familiar to Green, who together with Grisham turned the special election into the most expensive Senate race in the history of the state. Together they spent nearly $3 million.
Sensitive to Green’s advantage as an incumbent, Knabe has been on the offensive. Although Green’s opening mailers to voters ignored Knabe, Knabe’s mailers have targeted Green, attacking him in a manner that has enraged the Green camp.
“We’re furious. (These are) sleaze-ball tactics,” Larry Morse, a Green campaign spokesman, recently declared, referring to a Knabe mailer that branded Green a part-time senator for missing or abstaining from more than 200 floor or committee votes.
What the mailer failed to mention, Morse argued, was that Green has also cast more than 6,000 floor and committee votes since he was elected, amassing the third-best vote attendance record in the Senate.
“Their only chance in the race is to throw mud at the wall and hope it sticks,” asserted an angry Morse.
Responds Knabe: “It’s not sleazy, it’s just facts.”
Known as a loyal Republican and staunch conservative, Knabe’s strategy is to depict Green as a liberal puppet of Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who funneled $1.1 million into Green’s special election campaign last year.
Both candidates are talking about much the same issues. “When you’re out there walking, it’s crime, drugs and gangs,” said Knabe, who is talking tough.
He advocates a mandatory death penalty for gang murderers, including teen-agers as young as 15. “We can’t go around and just continue to pat them on the wrists,” he said. He supports prosecuting as adults juvenile gang members accused of violent crimes. Moreover, he says the media should be lobbied to keep “their gang-related coverage to a minimum,” and the entertainment industry should be encouraged “to refrain from romanticizing street gang terrorists.”
‘More Prison Guards’
He supports government confiscation of drug dealers’ property and insists that “we don’t need more social workers. We need more prison guards.”
Contending that the “real” public health danger of AIDS is the secrecy surrounding victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Knabe agrees with two AIDS-related initiatives on the ballot. Proposition 96, sponsored by Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, would require people charged with certain sex offenses or assaults on peace officers or emergency personnel to provide blood specimens for AIDS testing.
Proposition 102--which has been assailed by religious leaders and AIDS researchers--would require doctors and others to report to health authorities the names of patients who they know “or reasonably believe” have been infected with the AIDS virus. The measure would also allow insurers and employers to use the results of AIDS tests. California law already requires reporting the names of patients with AIDS.
“These incredible problems facing all of us were created by the extreme permissive policies of the ‘60s,” Knabe emphasizes in a mailer that features a large photograph of him in church. The same brochure includes another photograph of Knabe, 45, with his wife, Julie, and two teen-age sons.
Family and church are two of the pillars of Knabe’s life, say his friends and colleagues. They describe him as likable, hard-working, energetic and community-oriented. Even the hectic pace of a legislative campaign can’t keep him away from a son’s football game, noted Cerritos Councilwoman Ann Joynt, a Democrat who is remaining neutral in the Green-Knabe contest. “Everybody thinks very highly of Don,” she added.
For years Knabe has been a member of the New Life Community Church in Artesia, where he has taught Sunday school and served as a deacon. He’s also an active member of the local Optimist Club, one of the most influential groups in Cerritos.
His wife, Julie Knabe, an assistant bank vice president and former president of the Cerritos Chamber of Commerce, is seen as an asset to her husband’s political career. Not only does she have her own business and community contacts but she also hits the chicken-dinner circuit with him.
Knabe’s former City Council colleagues generally speak well of him. “He’s a good person to work with . . . a good team member,” said Cerritos Councilwoman Diana Needham, a Democrat who was criticized last year for endorsing Knabe in the special election. Like Joynt, she is staying neutral this year.
A councilman from 1980 until this year, when he chose not to run for a third term, Knabe receives high marks for his actions during the Cerritos air disaster two years ago, when he was mayor. After two airplanes collided and plummeted into a local neighborhood, killing all 67 people aboard the planes and 15 people on the ground--including a friend of the Knabe family--Knabe “was all over the place,” Joynt said.
“All through the entire ordeal he was leading, he was helping,” said Alan Ulrich, a former City Council candidate who attends the same church as Knabe.
Still, Knabe has his detractors, most of whom prefer to speak anonymously. They say that Cerritos is a city governed more by a highly professional city staff than by the council, which for that reason assumes less of a leadership role than in other communities.
For all of Knabe’s apparent affability, his critics say he can be arrogant, two-faced, vindictive, and overly political.
“I think he’s pretty damned sanctimonious,” asserted Christopher Fuentes, a frequent critic of the council who unsuccessfully ran for a council seat last spring. Fuentes, who has been active in Democratic politics, added that Knabe “takes and returns things on a personal level.”
Raised in Illinois, Knabe moved to Southern California in 1965 and spent three years in the Navy. In the 1970s he worked in his father-in-law’s industrial maintenance business, and for a stock brokerage firm. For the past seven years, he has been Supervisor Dana’s chief of staff, overseeing a staff of 25. He represents Dana’s office in Sacramento and in the cities of the 4th District, which stretches along the coast for the entire length of Los Angeles County, reaching up to include several cities in the Southeast area. Since early September Knabe has been on leave from his office.
Dana, the most moderate member of the board’s conservative majority, calls Knabe “my right arm.” Deputies who work under Knabe describe him as fair, a superior who listens and often reaches decisions by consensus.
Some of Dana’s key contributors are dipping into their pockets to help Knabe, whose campaign contributions report includes many names of developers, real estate companies, attorneys and businesses.
Having used mailers to link his opponent with taking money from “vested interests,” Knabe argues that his financial support cannot be compared with Green’s. Green, he continues, got much of his money in his last campaign from Roberti, who was supported by unions and professional and trade associations.
“Sure I take money from business and real estate. . . . It’s a totally different situation,” Knabe said.
He also sees nothing incongruous about his complaints about vested interests and the fact that last year, while a councilman, he accepted $1,000 worth of lodging, food, tickets and golf games from GTE, which is a partner in the city’s cable television system. His time with GTE representatives helped him in his later dealings with the Federal Communications Commission, which was considering the cable project, Knabe said.