21st Senate District : Democrat Takes Aim at Russell
Louise C. Gelber is out to make a name for herself.
As the Democratic candidate in the 21st State Senate District, the attorney from Arcadia is waging one of the most serious campaigns in recent years against an inveterate incumbent.
She has a professionally guided army of volunteers, campaigns practically around the clock and has committed herself to a spending plan that, so far, according to campaign reports, closely matches that of her opponent, Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale).
Gelber for months has been stumping across a large district,stretching from Bradbury in the San Gabriel Valley to Glendale, La Crescenta, Sunland and Tujunga to the Kern County boundary north of Palmdale and Lancaster.
“I’m serious, I’m working and I’m hopeful,” Gelber said. “I want to win.”
It will be an uphill battle for Gelber. She is challenging a Republican veteran, and registered Republicans in the 21st District outnumber Democrats 55% to 35%.
But Russell, who has held the seat since 1974 and served 10 years in the Assembly before that, said he is not ignoring the challenge. Russell said Gelber “is aggressive and moving around, and I am taking her very seriously.”
Russell has been seasoned by his 11 previous campaigns and his years in public office. But he said he will not forget the lessons he learned from the two times he lost a bid for office--in 1962, when he first ran for the Assembly, and in 1974, when he lost an Assembly seat to Mike Antonovich, now a Los Angeles County supervisor, after district reapportionment. He lost each race by only a few dozen votes.
After his loss to Antonovich, Russell won a special election to the state Senate the same year and has campaigned hard for reelection to the three full terms he has served since.
“I don’t think Sen. Russell ever gets complacent about a vote,” said Charles Jelloian, Russell’s top aide in the district and now his campaign manager. “He’s running very hard, as hard as he always does. He is in the district doing everything he can and not taking anything for granted.”
Russell concedes that his position is reasonably secure. “To unseat an incumbent really requires the incumbent to have pulled a major gaffe and to have made a lot of people angry,” Russell said in an interview. “That’s not the case here.”
He notes that he was reelected in 1984 by 75% of the voters, which, he said, “would indicate that the people are reasonably satisfied.”
Russell, 61, who holds the powerful position of Senate minority whip, said he is campaigning on his record. He lists among his more recent accomplishments legislation requiring that schools teach that abstinence is the only completely safe protection against unwanted teen-age pregnancy, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; legislation blocking access to “dial-a-porn” telephone numbers, and legislation encouraging distribution of surplus food by providing “Good Samaritan” protection to restaurants and other food donors.
Even Gelber’s staunchest supporters acknowledge that chances are slim that any Democrat can win in the district.
A. Vern Tipton of Arcadia, a businessman and real estate broker who said he has known Gelber for more than 40 years, has pumped about $20,000 into her campaign--an unusually large sum from one contributor.
Tipton predicted, “It would take a million dollars to beat Russell.” But he said he invested in Gelber because he has “very strong negative feelings toward her opponent.” He criticized Russell as “not doing very much at all.”
Gelber hopes to attract crossover votes from what she believes is a large number of dissatisfied Republicans. “She has a lot of Republican support; it’s a question of how much,” Tipton said.
“I’m a conservative business person. I don’t believe in giveaway programs,” said Gelber, whose campaign literature, buttons and other paraphernalia rarely mention that she is a Democrat. Gelber said she has received only token support from the party and, instead, is conducting a grass-roots campaign.
Party Lacks Funds
Jim Clarke, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, said that while the party lacks funds to support Gelber’s campaign, it is providing “people power,” including several volunteers from the county central committee. Clarke described Gelber as “a bundle of energy.”
Gelber has reported receiving contributions worth almost $90,000 as of Sept. 30 in her latest report filed with the county registrar of voters. much of this--almost $39,000--was contributed by Gelber herself in the form of loans, cash and in-kind contributions.
However, Gelber also has received many small contributions from supporters, including attorneys, business people, real estate brokers and investors, retired couples and housewives. Among contributors is former Gov. Edmund G. Brown.
Russell reported receiving more than $86,000 in contributions during the same period, including several donations of $1,000 each from corporations and political action committees.
Both candidates reported more than $80,000 in expenditures, but Russell had accumulated a war chest of more than $200,000 before the race began and is in a far stronger financial position than his challenger. Russell’s campaign officials estimate that the senator will spend about $100,000 on the race.
Gelber said she “plans to spend every penny I get” but acknowledged that she is surprised by the cost of campaigning. “Once you get into this, you don’t know that it’s going to cost that much,” Gelber said. “I didn’t contemplate anything like this. But I’m in it and I’m inspired.”
Gelber, 66, said she has been meeting with business and service groups, women’s organizations, veterans, teachers and students. She has engaged in the old-fashioned campaign tradition of attending neighborhood teas. She said she usually meets with four to five groups daily.
If elected, she said she would deal with complaints about proposals to build a prison in the Palmdale-Lancaster area, overcrowding and delays in court trials, congestion on freeways and overdevelopment in cities. She said she also would work for fewer students in classrooms and programs to assist small businesses.
Despite seemingly overwhelming odds, Gelber said she believes that she has a chance to upset Russell. “I have a success concept of life,” she said in a recent interview at the campaign headquarters she has set up in her home. “I want, in this campaign, to inspire people and to uplift them, to restore their confidence in government.”
Also on the ballot are Robert N. Scott of Pasadena, a Libertarian, and Michael Blumenthal of Monrovia, who represents the Peace and Freedom Party. Blumenthal, 39, a wholesaler’s representative, said he is not campaigning and has spent less than $100 to appear on the ballot “as an alternative choice to the Democrat and Republican.” Scott could not be reached for comment.