The fate of embattled Democratic Speaker Willie Brown hung in the balance Tuesday night as early returns showed Democrats and Republicans locked in a number of tight Assembly races.
Although unofficial figures were inconclusive, Brown declared an upset victory for Democrat Ted Lempert, a San Mateo attorney, ousting freshman Republican William P. Duplissea of San Carlos. Lempert received heavy infusions of Democratic money late in the campaign.
“Can you believe it, we got Duplissea?” a jubilant Brown told supporters at a party in his Capitol office even as early returns showed Lempert trailing slightly.
An Assembly incumbent has not been ousted since 1982.
In the most hotly contested race for the Senate, incumbent Democrat Cecil N. Green of Norwalk had a paper-thin lead over Republican Don Knabe of Cerritos, an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana.
Brown, who is facing a rebellion in his own ranks, needed to win at least three additional seats to assure his future as Speaker. Should he come up short in the final vote count, Brown would be forced to seek Republican support for a coalition speakership--the same technique he used in capturing the powerful post almost eight years ago.
In a first step, it was disclosed on the eve of the election that the Speaker has quietly embraced a list of Assembly “reforms” that would diffuse his authority but undercut his critics.
Republican efforts to dislodge several Democratic incumbents in the Assembly appeared for the most part to have faltered. But in one contest in the Sierra foothills, Norman Waters of Plymouth, the assistant majority floor leader, was runing slightly behind Republican challenger David Knowles, a mortgage banker, who ran an aggressive campaign implying that Waters was anti-religion and anti-family.
In one contest considered pivotal for Brown, Democrat Bob Epple, a Norwalk attorney, was in a tight race with Republican Wayne Grisham, a two-term incumbent considered vulnerable because he lost a special Senate election to Green last year.
Two other key Assembly races were too close to call: Republican incumbent Paul Zeltner of Lakewood against Democratic challenger Willard Murray of Compton and Republican Curt Pringle, a Garden Grove planning commissioner, against Democrat Christian (Rick) Thierbach, a Riverside prosecutor into whose campaign Democrats had invested enormous sums of money.
Meanwhile, a sprinkling of early ballots showed voters in Inglewood to be casting their votes for a dead man--the late Assemblyman Curtis Tucker, over Republican Mike Davis, who billed himself as “the only living candidate in the race.” Tucker, a Democrat who represented the district for 14 years, succumbed to liver cancer after winning his party’s nomination in June.
Gov. George Deukmejian is expected to call a special election to fill the seat if Tucker is declared the winner. Officials in the secretary of state’s office say Tucker would be the first legislator in a century to be elected posthumously.
The legislative election occurred under a cloud of uncertainty created by a investigation of alleged Capitol corruption that surfaced as the Legislature was wrapping up its 1988 session. Three Assembly members seeking reelection were targeted in the probe as was Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), who is not up for election.
All three of the Assembly members--GOP floor leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, Republican Frank Hill of Whittier and Democrat Gwen Moore of Los Angeles--seemed to be coasting to easy victories in safe districts.
Goal of Democrats
For Democrats in the Legislature, the goal was to pull off a statistical sleight of hand: hold on to their majority in both houses and even increase their numbers in the face of a historical trend of dwindling party registration and a tendency by many Democrats to support the GOP at the ballot box.
Although Democrats edged Republicans in new voter registrations since the June primary, their 50.36% registration total is the lowest they have held since 1943, according to Secretary of State March Fong Eu. Currently, 38.6% of California’s potential voters are registered Republicans, the highest percentage since 1970.
If the Democrats can hold on to their majority through the 1990 elections, they will retain control of the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries, helping to cement their political advantage for another 10 years.
Both parties focused their fund-raising and organizing efforts in the Assembly where the Republicans felt they had the best chance of capturing a majority by the end of the decade.
Here, the election also represented a political showdown between the Assembly’s top party leaders--Speaker Brown and GOP leader Nolan--both of whom face problems within their own ranks and whose futures depend largely on the outcome of a handful of hotly contested races.
Although Democrats’ 43-35 majority in the Assembly appeared comfortable enough, Brown could count on only 38 loyalists. Moderate-to-conservative Democrats who belong to a rebellious “Gang of Five” are pushing to topple Brown.
It takes 41 votes in the 80 member Assembly to elect a Speaker.
The “reforms” Brown appears ready to accept as a price for keeping the speakership include several demanded by the “Gang of Five.” They would give new authority to the Rules Committee to veto the Speaker’s decisions over committee chairmanships and membership as well as assignment of office space. Also under consideration are a limit on the number of bills that can be introduced by each member, a beefed-up Ethics Committee and a curb on the Speaker’s ability to remove dissidents from committees--as he did to the rebel Democrats after they challenged his authority.
Brown and his top lieutenants reportedly intend to present the plan to a closed-door Democratic caucus today.
Nolan, meanwhile, is expected to face a challenge from Assemblyman Bill Jones (R-Fresno) and a handful of other dissident Republicans who have vowed to oust him from his leadership post at a GOP caucus on Thursday. The Republican leader’s problems are compounded by his involvement in a federal investigation of corruption in Sacramento.
The FBI sting also figured heavily in the campaigns for several legislative seats, with Democrats eager to link Republicans to money raised by Nolan and others close to him. That was sweet revenge for Democrats who for years have endured GOP charges that they were pawns of the powerful and controversial Speaker.
Beyond that, the campaigns mirrored the presidential contest with a generally nasty tone that focused more on personal traits than issues.
Speaker Brown and the Democrats had pinned their hopes on the three Southern California Assembly districts where Democrats outnumber Republicans but where the GOP managed to score victories in 1986.
In the blue-collar 63rd District of southeast Los Angeles County, incumbent Grisham used the fact that Brown and his allies had heavily financed challenger Epple as an opportunity to label the Democrat a Brown “puppet.” Epple, meanwhile, accused Grisham of being an ineffective, absentee legislator.
Like the Grisham-Epple race, a majority of registered voters in the southeast’s 54th District are Democrats but tend to cross party lines when casting votes. That meant an uphill fight for Murray, a former congressional aide who only recently moved to the district, against incumbent Republican Zeltner, a former Lakewood City Council member whose roots are deep in the community.
By registration figures alone, Democrats, who hold a 57% to 36% edge over the GOP in the district, felt they had the best chance among the three pivotal races in Orange County’s 72nd District, which has no incumbent because of the death of Assemblyman Richard E. Longshore (R-Santa Ana).
The FBI sting was a major issue in the race between Democrat Thierbach, the Riverside prosecutor, and Pringle, the planning commissioner and drapery merchant who was selected by Orange County Republican leaders to take Longshore’s place on the ballot.
The Thierbach campaign charged Republicans with carrying out a last-minute dirty trick by hiring uniformed security guards to stand outside some district polls where they allegedly harassed Latino voters.
While Brown and Nolan placed much of their resources in the three Southern California races, in San Mateo County, Democrat Lempert ran as a reform candidate, capitalizing on the FBI sting and noting that Republican Duplissea is a close ally of Nolan. In the Senate, Republicans saw the 33rd District seat held by Green as their best hope of increasing their numbers as they head into the crucial 1990 reapportionment elections. Currently there are 24 Democrats and 15 Republicans and one independent in the upper chamber.
Republicans have been plotting Green’s ouster virtually from the day he won his seat in the 1987 special election that the GOP had been expected to win. Knabe in political mailers sought to link Green to Board of Equalization member Paul Carpenter, another target of the FBI probe.