For the first time in five years, the inconceivable appeared possible for John Vollbrecht, the Democratic candidate for the 41st Assembly District seat.
Vollbrecht, 40, who is making his third attempt for the seat, said he has never expected to unseat powerful Assembly Republican leader Pat Nolan on the incumbent's politically conservative home turf. Instead, the Eagle Rock contractor, a self-described moderate Democrat, campaigns mainly to offer voters an alternative candidate and to educate them on issues important to him.
But hope shone briefly for Vollbrecht on Aug. 24 when Nolan, 38, became one of four Assembly members targeted by the FBI in an investigation of Capitol lawmakers who allegedly accepted or sought campaign contributions and honorariums in return for legislative action.
For the first time since Nolan was elected to the Assembly 10 years ago, he appeared politically vulnerable.
Several days after the sting operation was made public, Vollbrecht received a phone call from representatives of Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. They offered to inject much-needed money into his largely invisible campaign.
"You can imagine how excited I was," Vollbrecht said. "I was thinking, 'Well, maybe this will be the big break.' "
At the invitation of Richard Ross, a Democratic campaign consultant with close ties to Brown, Vollbrecht flew to Sacramento and received a financial commitment to his campaign, he said.
"There wasn't any maybe about it," Vollbrecht said. "It was: 'You're targeted. We're putting $50,000 into your race. Let's put out a brochure, get some posters out.' I stayed an extra day in Sacramento to expedite that."
But four days later, the offer was pulled without explanation. Vollbrecht's chances to emerge from Nolan's shadow were dashed.
Ross did not return calls from The Times regarding the offer.
"It's like a horse race," Vollbrecht said. "People put money on you one day, then take it off the next."
The Democrats instead pumped money into other districts judged to have better prospects for a win, party leaders said.
Of the more than 166,800 registered voters in the district this year, which includes Glendale, La Canada Flintridge and parts of Eagle Rock and Pasadena, 49.5% are Republican and 41% Democrats, according to the Los Angeles County registrar's office.
So great is Nolan's hold on the district that in the 1986 election, he won 64,084 votes--67% of those cast--compared to Vollbrecht's 29,042 votes, or 30%.
Nolan, like other incumbents, has the advantage of name recognition, publicly funded newsletters and a healthy campaign fund, which makes him virtually unbeatable by a candidate without such resources.
Vollbrecht, with his meager campaign war chest already spent, appears to have taken the recent disappointment in stride and considers his main campaign mission unaltered.
"The reason I'm running is not because the Democratic Party knows I can win, but because they feel they have an important message to get across to the voters," he said.
Vollbrecht first ran in 1984 at the urging of Democratic Party officials. He mainly conducts a door-to-door campaign and said he spends about six hours each night and 10 hours each weekend promoting his ideas and criticizing Nolan's record on "the three E's"--education, the elderly and the environment.
Vollbrecht said his environmental interest stems from his days as a white-water rafting guide on the American River in Northern California. More recently, he said, he opposed a 135-mile crude oil pipeline that would have been buried under 5 miles of heavily used Glendale streets.
Vollbrecht, who is married to an elementary school principal, said he supports higher salaries for deserving teachers, smaller class sizes, better supervision of students and increased counseling.
For the elderly, he said, he supports affordable housing and improved medical benefits.
Vollbrecht said his opponent's financial statements exemplify the need for reform, his major campaign issue during the primary.
"I look at Mr. Nolan as an institution," he said. "This man has built up donors from all across the country. . . . It's disheartening, but you still keep going and do the best you can."
$825,231 for Nolan
Since January, Nolan has received $825,241 in contributions, according to recent campaign disclosure reports. His major donors include Bank of America Corp., Farmers Insurance Group, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., San Diego Trust & Savings, and subsidiaries of Cigna Corp., AT&T; and Occidental Petroleum.
Nolan has donated $743,341 to various Republican Assembly candidates in an attempt to pick up enough new legislators to gain a GOP majority in the Assembly by 1990.
Vollbrecht has received $2,260 since January in small donations from about 50 supporters, mostly within the district. He has spent $2,623 on his campaign, leaving him $363 in debt.
The lack of money is Vollbrecht's greatest source of frustration. With campaign mailers costing as much as $20,000, Vollbrecht said, it's been difficult getting his name and ideas to the voters.
"My biggest problem is being unknown," he said.
Members of the Nolan camp are calm and confident about the upcoming election, said Anne Richards, Nolan's press secretary.
"Things are going really well," Richards said. "Pat's taking his district seriously, but he's not worried about it."
Democrat Still Hopeful
If Nolan captures another overwhelming victory, Vollbrecht, a member of the executive board of the California Democratic Party, said he will step down and instead run to become secretary of the state Democratic Party.
"I've had my eye on that and I think that would be the next venture if I don't prevail in November," he said.
Despite the overwhelming odds against a Vollbrecht victory, the candidate said, he is still far from giving up hope.
"If in the event things do not go Mr. Nolan's way, there may be a recall election," Vollbrecht said. "I think there's still a chance. I think there's a small light at the end of the tunnel. As the stand-up comics say, hopefully, it's not another train."
The other candidates are registered nurse Curtis S. Helms of the Libertarian Party and optical technician Ivan W. Kasimoff of the Peace and Freedom Party.