State Sen. Cecil N. Green had arrived an hour late for the appointment, and now he was asking the visitor seated across from him in his campaign headquarters to be patient a few minutes longer.
The head of one of the state’s most powerful unions, Ed Foglia of the California Teachers Assn., was in the lobby and wanted to wish the Democratic incumbent in the 33rd state Senate District good luck in his bid to win reelection. When Foglia walked in, the two greeted each other warmly, shaking hands and praising each other’s efforts for education.
The encounter, in a private room of Green’s Norwalk headquarters, lasted fewer than five minutes but underscored a key connection in Green’s rise from Norwalk councilman to state senator. Union money and manpower from around the state helped Green upset Republican Assemblyman Wayne Grisham in a special election in May, 1987, and the 64-year-old Democrat is again counting on a coalition of labor, Latinos and party loyalists to carry him back to Sacramento for a full 4-year term on Nov. 8.
To accomplish that he must defeat Republican Donald R. Knabe, a former Cerritos councilman and Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana’s chief of staff.
Knabe, unlike Green, is a glib, polished communicator who is credited with helping Cerritos emerge as one of California’s most financially sound cities.
Still, most political observers believe Knabe is waging an uphill fight in the predominantly blue-collar district of single-family homes and shopping centers in southeast Los Angeles County and northwest Orange County. Registered Democrats in the 2-county district not only outnumber Republicans, 52% to 38%, but Green, a popular Norwalk councilman for 13 years, is the incumbent with all the advantages incumbency carries with it.
“That’s his one edge in this race,” said Knabe campaign consultant Angela Bay Buchanan. “As the incumbent, he makes a couple of calls and he’s got the money he needs. As the challenger, Don has to work harder for his money, staging back-yard barbecues and receptions. . . . “
In reality, both candidates are relying heavily on party leaders to bankroll their campaigns, with the winner conceivably spending more than $1 million to win a seat that pays $37,105 annually.
The reason: The race has implications well beyond the district as Republicans and Democrats wrestle for control of the Statehouse and an advantage when reapportionment of legislative boundaries begins in 1990. Both parties believe they can win the so-called swing district, where a high percentage of “Reagan Democrats” have tended to vote Republican in recent years.
In Orange County, which has about a quarter of the district’s 289,849 voters, Green’s reelection is considered crucial by Democratic activists trying to revive the party’s flagging fortunes locally.
Among the county’s 13 state legislators, Green is the only Democrat. He represents the communities of Cypress, Los Alamitos, La Palma and Buena Park. In Los Angeles County, the district includes the communities of Cerritos, Artesia, Lakewood, Bellflower, Norwalk, Downey and Santa Fe Springs.
“That race is absolutely vital . . .,” said Paul Garza, executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party. “We’ve made gains in voter registration in the last year. To sustain that momentum, Green must be reelected. We’d be in a state of shock if we lost that one.”
Aided by Roberti
It also would be a blow to Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who orchestrated an all-out Democratic effort on Green’s behalf in the special election. The strategy included giving doughnuts to voters, using vans equipped with mobile phones to transport voters to the polls and organizing hundreds of volunteers to walk precincts.
Green, a former muffler shop owner, also received nearly $1.1 million from Roberti and his political action groups in what became the most expensive legislative race in state history.
As of Sept. 30, the most recent deadline for filing campaign contribution and expense reports, Green had received about $601,000 in cash and non-monetary contributions, including $106,000 from nine fellow Democrats in the state Senate and $20,000 from a Roberti-controlled political group. Green also received $127,048 from unions, including $7,500 from the 206,000-member California Teachers Assn.
Green, who was a Republican until he switched parties in the early 1970s, said the amount being spent on the race is “ludicrous,” but added: “The stakes are high. When it comes to reapportionment, the party knows I’ll vote Democratic.”
Because he was elected in the middle of a legislative session, Green maintained “he had to hit the ground running” to familiarize himself with the way things work in Sacramento.
However, some critics say that Green stumbled when he arrived in the unfamiliar territory of Capitol politics. He had trouble keeping aides, and showed little personal initiative when it came to introducing legislation, they said.
“He probably doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body,” said one knowledgeable Democratic legislative aide who asked not to be named. “But he’s probably out of his depth in the Legislature.”
One Democratic senator said party officials “kept Green on a very short leash. . . .” The senator, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled asking Green on the Senate floor how he planned to vote on a key issue.
“Green reached into his coat pocket,” the senator said, “pulled out a list, and then read me his vote. It was amazing. He didn’t have a clue.”
Green, in a recent interview in his campaign office, acknowledged he made mistakes in his first go-round in Sacramento. But he said it was a result of having to hire a Capitol staff, open a district office in Santa Fe Springs and find a place to live in Sacramento in mid-session.
“Those first few months were difficult,” said Green, whose wife, Mary, is his constant companion in the Capitol, often attending committee meetings or sitting in the back of the Senate chamber. “I want to get reelected so I can prove myself over a full term.”
Supporters contend Green, one of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats, showed promise as a lawmaker. He had the third best voting record in the Senate, missing less than 6% of his 6,919 floor and committee votes. Green also delivered, his proponents say, on campaign promises, particularly in the area of worker safety, crime and education.
Green fought hard to save the state’s worker safety program, appearing at news conferences with labor leaders and pressing for legislation to revive the program, known as Cal/OSHA. He has actively supported Proposition 97, which would restore the program if passed on Nov. 8. “I’m afraid it’s our last chance,” said Green, who claims the rate of work-related injuries and deaths has gone up since Gov. George Deukmejian eliminated the program as part of a budget-cutting push in 1987. Federal officials are now responsible for job site safety in California.
Said Green: “Workers in this state deserve local protection.”
Green also co-authored a Urban Impact Aid bill, which delivered $3 million to schools in the 33rd District, as well as legislation that increased penalties for drunk drivers and persons convicted of freeway shootings. After the Whittier Narrows earthquake, which caused widespread damage in the district, Green helped win passage of legislation that provided $95 million in special grants and low-interest loans for homeowners and renters.
“Cecil made promises and followed through,” CTA President Foglia said. “I’m the first to admit he’s not the most charismatic person. But in our position we don’t need charisma, we need support.”
Green, who favors the death penalty and worked to oust former California Chief Justice Rose Bird, has also won praise and endorsements from numerous local and state law enforcement organizations, as well as Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp.
Robert J. MacLeod, general manager of the 1,200-member Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said Green has been “by far the most responsive” state legislator in the county in recent years. Green’s office, MacLeod said, “solicits our opinion” regularly.
“There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t hear from them,” MacLeod said. “It’s nice to know somebody cares.”
When asked about Knabe, Green, a quiet sort, becomes angry.
The Republicans, he contends, are distorting his record, and he accused Knabe of “running a campaign of misinformation. It is a typical sleazy Republican campaign.”
Green entered the 1987 special election at the urging of former Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress), who was elected to the state Board of Equalization. Carpenter was Green’s campaign chairman and played a significant role in persuading Roberti to support the Norwalk Democrat with money and volunteers. Republicans are expected to raise Green’s association with Carpenter as an issue because Carpenter is among five state elected officials who are a focus of the FBI investigation into political corruption in Sacramento.
Another key figure in that case, John Shahabian, a former Carpenter aide who was an informant for the FBI during the investigation, also worked on Green’s first Senate campaign.
Green said he “can’t worry” about whether his longtime friendship with Carpenter will damage his reelection bid.
“I’ve only seen Paul three or four times in the last year,” Green said. “What Paul Carpenter does is Paul Carpenter’s business. And what Cecil Green does is Cecil Green’s business. . . . “
In the Capitol, Green has struck a folksy pose. He appeared on the Senate floor in July, 1987, dressed in red, white and blue--preparing to attend a Fourth of July fireworks show that evening in Norwalk.
“I think we should all be in red, white and blue,” he cracked at the time.
His inability to quit smoking, a 1987 campaign pledge to supporters and friends, coupled with his age and the rigors of two intense campaigns in the span of 18 months, has prompted some to question Green’s health. Green said he planned to retire from public life until he was talked into running for the Senate. Now, he says, “it’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. . . . It has totally rejuvenated me. I enjoy going to work in the morning, something I haven’t always been able to say.”
As for his health, Green, his voice quickening, challenged his critics to “follow me around for a week or two. I’ll leave them breathless.
“If I’m ailing, elderly and senile, I couldn’t have accomplished what I did in the Senate,” Green said. “They can’t bury me yet.”