Assembly Foes Turn Up Heat in High-Stakes Race in 54th District

Times Staff Writer

On the floor of the House of Representatives recently, a Democratic congressman handed one of his California colleagues a list of state Assembly candidates targeted to receive campaign money from members of the California Democratic delegation.

At the top of the list was Willard H. Murray, the Democrat trying to unseat freshman Republican Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner in the 54th District. The Southeast Los Angeles County district is a heavily Democratic, blue-collar stronghold that Democrats want to recapture to ensure legislative control in 1990, when congressional and legislative districts will be reapportioned.

“The stakes don’t get any bigger than that,” California Democratic Party Chairman Peter D. Kelly said in explaining why both parties have targeted the 54th for campaign spending that could easily total more than $1 million.

Stakes in the 54th are high, too, because Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco needs Murray to help fend off a challenge to his leadership from Republicans and five dissident Democrats.


The death two weeks ago of Assemblyman Curtis Tucker of Inglewood, a Democrat and a Brown supporter, intensifies Brown’s struggle to survive as Speaker because right now he can count on only 38 loyal votes in an 80-member Assembly.

Predictions Numerous

Predictions about the race are as numerous as political pundits who are polled. At first glance, the district appears a safe one for Democrats, who account for 65% of registered voters. But many of the Democrats, particularly in Lakewood, Bellflower and East Long Beach, are blue-collar voters and the Democrats’ problem in winning their support mirrors the party’s dilemma nationwide.

Murray, 57, and Zeltner, 63, started out waging quiet campaigns, walking precincts and preparing mailers for voters in the 54th, which extends southeast from Willowbrook to take in Compton, Bellflower, Paramount, Lakewood and part of northeast Long Beach.


Now the race has moved quickly into high gear. Zeltner, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s captain and former Lakewood city councilman, recently sent a mailer to all district voters featuring a picture of Murray over a caption that read, “This man is lying to you!”

Inside, the mailer said Murray had not received a math degree from UCLA as he claimed, does not live in the district as he claimed, and does not work as a congressional aide as he claimed.

Murray’s campaign has confirmed that he does not have a UCLA degree. And, Murray and his wife have owned a home in Baldwin Hills for years. As Zeltner’s mailer states, Murray’s driver’s license bears the Baldwin Hills address.

Murray, a 30-year veteran of Democratic politics whose roots go back to the Civil Rights movement, is a campaign consultant and producer of a slate mailer that goes to East Los Angeles County neighborhoods. He established a voting address in Compton in 1986, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Assembly in the primary election. This year, his voting address is an apartment in Paramount. In 1975, he established a voting address in another Assembly district in time to compete unsuccessfully in a special election.

State law gives candidates great leeway on the residency issue. People contesting a candidate’s residency must prove in court that a candidate intended to live outside his or her district.

Murray readily acknowledges he no longer works for Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), even though he lists his occupation on the ballot as a “congressional legislative assistant.”

Murray said he went on leave from Dymally’s staff two years ago to run for the Assembly. Many Democrats, including Murray, believe the bloody, nine-way Democratic primary that year, in which Murray finished second, split the party so badly that Zeltner was able to win despite the district’s large number of Democratic voters.

Since the disclosure about the UCLA degree, Murray has not returned numerous calls from Times reporters to his campaign headquarters.


Zeltner has deep roots in the district’s heavily blue-collar eastern area. Murray’s base of political support is west of the 710 Freeway, in heavily black and Latino areas of Compton and Willowbrook.

Murray hasn’t received money directly from Speaker Brown, although in the primary he received contributions from such Brown loyalists in the Assembly as Michael Roos, Gwen Moore and Burt Margolin, all of Los Angeles, and Terry Friedman of Sherman Oaks.

Between the June primary and Sept. 30, Murray had taken in $109,320 and had spent $55,528. But he is expected to bring in and to spend at least another $300,000 before election day. As of Sept. 30, Zeltner had raised nearly $200,000. He said he expects to spend between $400,000 and $500,000 on his reelection effort.

Murray insists that blue-collar Democrats in the 54th will vote for him, as they did for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley the first time he ran for governor. That year, Bradley carried the district by 10,000 votes. But the second time, when turnout fell sharply, Bradley lost by about 200 votes.

Murray stresses economic issues and a tough stance on crime. Once an opponent of the death penalty, he now supports it. On gang violence, he says a lot of gang members simply ought to be locked up, and criticizes Zeltner for authoring an unsuccessful bill that would have given tax breaks to firms that hire gang members who committed felonies.

Murray opposes gun control, a stance that could bring him into conflict with political leaders in Compton who have lobbied unsuccessfully for tougher gun control laws.

“I think a person who has no police record or no history of a mental defect ought to be able to buy and possess any kind of a gun that he wants to, outside of a machine gun (or) a bazooka,” Murray said.

Zeltner, on the other hand, supports legislation to outlaw the sale of what he calls “semi-automatic, assault weapons of the military type"--action that Compton officials strongly support. Zeltner also favors a waiting period before rifles can be purchased; there already is a waiting period for handguns.


Still, Zeltner insists that he is as tough-minded as Murray on crime. “I spent 26 years taking people off the streets and putting them in jail. I’m not soft on crime,” said Zeltner.

Murray also says Zeltner has not supported the economic interests of working people in his district, contending that Zeltner opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage and failed to oppose the efforts to lift the ceiling on credit card interest rates.

“I don’t know if he’s a management, business-oriented guy but his voting record would indicate that,” Murray said. “He does not vote like someone representing a working-class district. He votes like somebody representing a conservative, upper-income district.”

Zeltner abstained from voting on a bill that would have raised the minimum wage, which was increased last year to $4.25 an hour from $3.35 an hour by the state Industrial Welfare Commission. And Zeltner said he was “inclined” to vote for removal of the credit cart interest ceiling. “I felt the arguments for it were pretty good.” But in the end, he abstained.

“I respond to the will of my constituents and the mail I got . . . indicated they did not want that,” Zeltner said.


Willard H. Murray, Democrat, opposes gun control

‘I think a person who has no police record or no history of a mental defect ought to be able to buy and possess any kind of a gun that he wants to, outside of a machine gun (or) a bazooka.’

Paul E. Zeltner, Republican, wants waiting period before rifles can be bought

‘I spent 26 years taking people off the streets and putting them in jail. I’m not soft on crime.’