There was less than a week to go in this year's session of the Legislature, freshman Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner said, when the Lakewood Republican bumped into Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) in the Assembly lounge.
"How much are you going to spend against me this time?" Zeltner said he asked Brown, the flamboyant broker of Assembly Democratic campaign funds.
Zeltner said Brown looked him straight in the eye and responded: "One point two million."
It is unlikely that Brown or his Assembly allies will end up spending even a quarter of that amount, according to Democratic sources and preliminary campaign finance reports. But it is a story Zeltner likes to tell anyway. As a Republican seeking reelection in a heavily Democratic district, Zeltner has seized upon Brown's interest in the campaign as an issue he hopes will roil Republicans and Democrats alike.
"The leadership right now is more interested in maintaining control of the power in Sacramento than they are in solving the problems of the people we are supposed to be serving," Zeltner charged at a recent campaign appearance this month in Bellflower.
During a debate in September with Willard H. Murray, his Democratic opponent, Zeltner struck a similar theme: "The only way we are going to force change upon (the leadership) is to send people like me back up there. People who are independent."
Brown, facing challenges from Republicans as well as dissident Democrats, has developed a strategy for keeping his job that hinges on ousting Zeltner and Republican Wayne Grisham of Norwalk and picking up a vacant seat held by the late Orange County Republican Richard Longshore.
"I've always operated on the theory we would . . . win three new seats," Brown said in a recent interview.
Zeltner, a retired sheriff's captain and former Lakewood city councilman, is counting on Brown's strategy backfiring in the predominantly working-class 54th District, which he characterizes as fiercely independent and unresponsive to meddling by "liberal Democrats" such as Brown.
"The people down here . . . may be registered Democrats, but they also have conservative ideas," Zeltner said in an interview. "They are hard-working white-collar and blue-collar types. They have pride in their community . . . and they don't like to have their candidates forced down their throats."
In a repeat of his 1986 effort, Zeltner is running a homespun campaign that downplays his GOP affiliation and focuses instead on his ties to the community and his experience in law enforcement.
Zeltner and an entourage of volunteers spend about three hours a day knocking on doors, handing out campaign literature and talking to anyone who will listen. Zeltner estimates he has about 200 volunteers--both Republicans and Democrats--working in the district, which includes Lakewood, Bellflower, Compton, Paramount, parts of eastern Long Beach and the unincorporated community of Willowbrook.
Zeltner, 63, a former commander of the Lakewood sheriff's station, talks mostly about crime, drugs and gang violence. Although he acknowledges that most of his legislative efforts to deal with the problems have failed, he tells people how hard he tried--and how hard Brown and the Democratic leadership worked against him.
Sponsor of Anti-Gang Bills
As an example, Zeltner cites a 7-hour public hearing he held in Compton last spring on gang violence that prompted him to introduce a package of gang-related bills in the Assembly. The legislation dealt with a wide range of issues, including providing tax incentives for businesses that employ gang members and giving local authorities the power to seize vehicles used in drive-by shootings.
None of the six bills passed the Assembly. Zeltner said some Democratic colleagues who supported his legislation told him "word came down" from the Democratic leadership that "they are not going to go."
Baxter Sinclair, a Compton businessman known for employing gang members, said "it made my stomach sick" when Zeltner's gang legislation died. Sinclair, who attended the Compton hearing, said he also spent several hours meeting separately with Zeltner and his staff to come up with the package of bills.
"It would have really helped solve some of the problems," said Sinclair, who supported Zeltner's opponent in 1986 but is backing Zeltner this time.
Zeltner managed to get 27 of his 61 bills passed into law during his 2-year term. Some of the bills dealt with local issues, such as one that passed last year extending state assistance for minority- and women-operated businesses seeking contracts on the Century Freeway project. He was less successful with a bill designed to assist the financially strapped Paramount Adult School. That bill died this summer in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
Most of Zeltner's legislation focused on his two greatest interests: law enforcement and health care. Zeltner, who during long Assembly floor sessions sits in a special orthopedic chair because of back problems, served for nearly seven years on the board of governors of Doctors Hospital of Lakewood.
Zeltner, a member of both the Public Safety and Health committees, wrote successful legislation to toughen state investigations of insurance companies that sell bogus and unnecessary health insurance policies to the elderly, as well as several bills that closed legal loopholes related to sentencing of juveniles and police powers to confiscate weapons.
By his own reckoning, however, Zeltner's "most significant and most meaningful bills" got nowhere. Even what he considers his greatest legislative accomplishment--a highly publicized bill that added 150 California Highway Patrol officers during the height of the freeway-shooting frenzy last year--was gutted of several tough provisions he included in the original version.
"Learning is an expensive proposition," Zeltner said in an interview. "Many of the bills I did lose, had I been more aware of the hidden process, I might have been able to be a little more successful. . . . Next time around, because of the education, I will be much more effective than I was the first two years."
One Sacramento lobbyist, who declined to be identified, said Zeltner seems to have been frustrated by the disorderly proceedings of the Assembly.
"Because he's a cop, he's got the impression there should be rules for everything in the world," the lobbyist said. But in Sacramento, "it's the unwritten rules that are more important" and Zeltner has failed to grasp them.
Despite his limited legislative success, Zeltner's message to voters is that he has served his district well, primarily by helping residents and local governments cut through bureaucratic red tape. One former Republican Assembly aide in Sacramento said Zeltner steered clear of most high-profile issues in the Legislature to focus on district matters "whether it put him on Page 1 or not."
David Nagler, a lobbyist who represents the California Public Defenders Assn. and often finds himself at odds with Zeltner, agreed: "Paul takes the job of being a legislator very seriously. He is one of those members who came to town to fulfill a public policy purpose. Unlike some politicians who see politics as a way to make a name for themselves . . . Paul Zeltner's purpose . . . is to better society."
Zeltner was elected in 1986 without winning a single precinct in Compton or nearby Willowbrook, areas with large black populations. As a result, he has made a special effort to reach out to the Compton area, opening a district office there to serve constituents, regularly talking to city officials and local ministers and holding the anti-gang hearing.
Commendation From Compton
"He has been doing a fantastic job," said Compton Councilman Robert Adams, a black Democrat who supported Zeltner's opponent in 1986 but has endorsed Zeltner's reelection. "He has worked with us in city government. He has been very amenable to this community."
Last fall, the Compton City Council commended Zeltner for working "diligently on several major concerns of the city" after he was able to get state officials to finish landscaping a portion of the Artesia (91) Freeway that passes through Compton. Zeltner displays the resolution on the wall of his district office.
"He hasn't been afraid to go into the minority communities, and that is obviously going to help him a lot," said one longtime Democratic activist. "He has taken very seriously the whole notion of trying to hang on to an overwhelmingly Democratic district. . . . It is something that Willard (Murray) has to overcome."
Murray, on leave as a congressional aide, also ran for the seat in 1986 but lost in the Democratic primary. Murray established a residence in the district at that time, but Zeltner has branded him an outsider who is more interested in Democratic Party politics than the concerns of the 54th District.
In solicitation letters Zeltner mailed last spring, he called on voters to "let Willie Brown and his outside interests know once again that they cannot dictate their demands on our community." In the debate with Murray in September, Zeltner cited campaign contributions that Murray received from Assembly Democrats and said, "I'll let you take your guess how Mr. Murray is going to be independent."
An Independent Democrat
Murray, who has close ties to the powerful Westside-San Fernando Valley political organization of Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman, has been careful to distance himself from Brown during both the June primary and general election campaign. A spokeswoman for BAD Campaigns--the political arm of the Berman-Waxman organization, which is running Murray's campaign--described Murray as an independent Democrat and said he will probably not accept money from Brown.
"We can do this independently," Chris Lopez said. "Willard is more interested in not having his campaign tainted by claims that he will be an operative of the Sacramento leadership."
Michael Galizio, Brown's chief of staff, also rejected Zeltner's notion that Brown is somehow orchestrating Murray's campaign from Sacramento. Galizio said Brown may end up contributing to the Murray effort, but he was careful to stress Murray's autonomy.
"It is a campaign that Willard Murray is running with his supporters in the 54th Assembly District," Galizio said.
Sam Walton, a Murray campaign aide, said Murray "does not have the kind of personality that Willie Brown--or anyone--can control." Walton said Murray has taken no position on the speakership question to avoid alienating some of his Democratic supporters.
"It is not in the best interest of the party to cause bickering," Walton said.
Counted as a Brown Ally
Brown, however, is clearly counting Murray as a political ally, several sources said. While campaign statements show that the Speaker has not contributed directly to Murray's campaign, several Assembly members who support his speakership have. Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) has given $60,000, Assemblymen Bruce Margolin (D-Los Angeles) and Terry Friedman (D-Tarzana) $30,000 each, and Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton) $15,000 each.
Brown was also a campaign issue two years ago when Zeltner won the seat in an upset, defeating Democrat Edward K. Waters, whose campaign was heavily bankrolled by Brown and Waters' mother, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).
Zeltner won that election by appealing to Republicans and conservative Democrats and waging a door-to-door campaign that stressed his traditional values and his 40 years of living in the area. Virtually abandoned by Republican legislative leaders, Zeltner depended on local donations and a hefty loan from three Republican Los Angeles County supervisors to finance the effort.
This time around, campaign finance reports show that Zeltner has picked up several large contributions from fellow Republicans--including $25,000 from Project '90, a group of moderate Republicans in the Assembly, and $20,000 from the Lincoln Club of Orange County, a volunteer group of wealthy and influential Republicans. He also said Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette (R-Northridge) has pledged $10,000.
No Funds From the Party
The reports show that financial assistance from the Assembly Republican leadership, however, has been lacking thus far. As of Sept. 30, the Assembly Republican Political Action Committee--whose funds are controlled by Minority Floor Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) and his supporters--had not contributed to Zeltner's campaign.
Zeltner, who complained in 1986 about the lack of support from Sacramento, said he is not concerned this year. He said he expects to receive contributions from Nolan and others during the final weeks of the campaign.
"It is in their best interest to retain this seat," Zeltner said in an interview. "They didn't think they could get it last time. Now they've got it, and they want to keep it."
Despite Nolan's lackluster support for his campaign, Zeltner generally fell into step with Republican leaders when he got to Sacramento two years ago. Zeltner said Nolan was instrumental in getting him a seat on the Health Committee, an assignment he wanted second only to the Public Safety Committee.
Zeltner has not joined dissident Republican lawmakers seeking to oust Nolan as minority leader. One Sacramento lobbyist, who declined to be identified, said Zeltner has followed Republican caucus positions "in knee-jerk reaction" unlike other GOP lawmakers "who are able to have some independence and still support Pat Nolan."
A Different Opinion
But Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), the party whip, tells a different story. On some issues--particularly those related to his district--McClintock said Zeltner does not follow the party line. Zeltner, for example, voted to restore some of Cal/OSHA's authority over worker safety despite Republican opposition.
"He is a very independent vote," McClintock said. "When he is taking a stand on an issue, try as I will, I can't budge him . . . I learned very early that you don't get between Paul Zeltner and his district."
A survey by the California Journal showed that Zeltner was one of the least conservative Republicans in the Assembly during his first year in office, scoring just 65 out of a possible 100 points in the magazine's litmus test of conservatism. By contrast, Nolan scored 91. Only two Republicans in the survey were more moderate than Zeltner.
Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville), an associate of Nolan, said the Assembly Republican leadership strongly endorses Zeltner's reelection. But, he said, the caucus will not spend money on the race unless it needs to.
"We will monitor the campaign, and if it looks like we are in trouble, I am sure he will get all the support he needs," Baker said. "Basically, he has a strong local base, and he hasn't needed it."
Medical Groups Donate
As of Sept. 30, Zeltner had raised more than $195,000, much of it in local donations of about $1,000 or less. Campaign finance reports show Zeltner also received contributions from several medical groups, including $9,500 from the California Medical Political Action Committee; $5,000 from National Medical Enterprises Inc., which owns Doctors Hospital of Lakewood; $2,000 from the California Hospital Political Action Committee; $1,500 from the California Dental Political Action Committee, and $1,000 from the California Optometric Political Action Committee.
In an interview, Zeltner predicted he will spend between $400,000 and $500,000 on his reelection effort--about three times what he spent in 1986. Most of that money is going toward campaign literature, support services for volunteers and an aggressive direct-mail campaign.
Murray, who spent about $250,000 on the June primary, is expected to spend $300,000 on the general election, a campaign consultant said. As of Sept. 30, Murray had raised a total of $377,000 for the two races.
Earlier this month, Zeltner mailed a hard-hitting brochure to 85,000 households--both Democratic and Republican--that his consultant, Allan Hoffenblum, said sets the tone for the final weeks of the campaign. The piece accuses Murray of lying about his educational background, his occupation and his residency. One Zeltner campaign official dubbed it the "integrity gap."
The mailer includes a copy of a letter from UCLA stating that Murray has never received a degree from the university, despite claims by Murray that he has a mathematics degree. Murray has acknowledged that he does not have the degree.
On Leave From Job
The mailer questions Murray's official ballot designation as a "congressional legislative assistant," charging that Murray has earned just $400 as an aide to Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton) during the past 20 months. Murray counters that he has been on leave from the job to run for the Assembly.
Finally, the mailer accuses Murray of living outside the district, not in the Compton residence he lists as his home. Murray, who owns a home in Windsor Hills, insists he now lives in Compton.
"I think it is an issue that has to be pushed," Zeltner said. "We are talking about basic differences between what appears to be and what is."
In keeping with the thrust of his campaign, Zeltner said one of his key objectives during a second term would be to join Republicans and Democrats interested in changing the way the Assembly is run. Zeltner wants to oust Brown as Speaker, but he said he also wants to make sure Brown is not simply replaced by another power broker.
Times staff writer Mark Gladstone in Sacramento contributed to this story.