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It’s Ethics Vs. Ethics in Wright, Braly Battle : Campaign: Other issues in the 37th Assembly District have been overshadowed by the debate over who has done the right thing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few years back, Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) displayed a poster in her Sacramento office that summed up her pugnacious political style with terse eloquence. “It’s better to be a stomper,” it proclaimed, “than a stompee.”

In her five terms in the Legislature, the 60-year-old Wright--a car mechanic’s daughter from the hard-coal country of eastern Pennsylvania--has earned a reputation as an aggressive, blunt-spoken conservative who rarely retreats from a political street fight.

Now Wright is trying to stomp out perhaps the strongest primary-election challenger she has faced since winning her 37th Assembly District seat in 1980: Hunt Braly, top aide to state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita), a longtime Wright antagonist.

Braly, 35, has made Wright’s ethics a central theme of his campaign in an attempt to take advantage of her well-publicized efforts to intervene with law enforcement authorities on behalf of her daughter, Victoria. The younger Wright faced jail or loss of her license after running up 27 traffic tickets--24 for speeding--over seven years.

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He also has tried to portray Wright as having political ties to liberal Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco)--the campaign equivalent of calling someone a devil-worshiper in Wright’s conservative, GOP-dominated district, which sprawls from northwestern Los Angeles County to Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

For her part, Wright has stressed her membership on several powerful Assembly committees and her influence with the GOP Assembly leadership. She also cites legislation she sponsored to benefit emotionally troubled youngsters and mothers having difficulty getting ex-husbands to make child-support payments.

Braly launched his campaign last year not long after Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury concluded, following a 10-week investigation, that Wright had engaged in a “clear pattern” of trying to obtain special treatment for her daughter and herself with local police, judges and state Department of Motor Vehicles officials. However, the district attorney said Wright did not commit any prosecutable offenses.

Bradbury said that, among other improprieties, Wright visited a Ventura judge at his home to discuss two speeding citations issued to her daughter. The elder Wright also persuaded Simi Valley police to throw out a ticket she received in 1978 while serving on the City Council, Bradbury said.

But ethics isn’t the only issue in the race, which has emerged as one of the most hotly contested Republican primaries in California this year. The candidates also have significant philosophical differences on abortion, gun control and other high-profile issues.

Not surprisingly, Wright and Braly have sharply differing interpretations of whether her actions were ethical.

Wright said she did not commit any ethical violations because she gained nothing material by trying to help her daughter.

“I think the way the voters see ethics is whether or not we’re being influenced or whether we’re putting money in our pockets, based on the special interests that come before the Legislature. . . . I am ethical. I’ve never taken money,” she said.

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But Braly said Wright acted as if she were “above aspects of the law and social norms the rest of us have to abide by.”

“The sole problem I have is that she hasn’t recognized what she did was improper and said she won’t do it again. We don’t need back-room politicians making deals with judges to settle legal cases,” he said.

The two candidates’ personalities present almost as much contrast as their views on ethics. Bespectacled and small-framed, Braly is a graduate of USC and Loyola Law School. He is known as a bright, tenacious legislative technician, well-prepared and lawyerly when presenting his positions. But associates also describe him as aloof and uninclined to engage in the kind of schmoozing that lubricates the political process.

Wright claims ethics is not an issue in the campaign, but Braly’s hammering at the theme clearly has touched a nerve with her.

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“He’s an annoyance. God, is he an annoyance,” she said.

But as the campaign enters its final month, Braly has found the ethics theme can be a double-edged sword. In recent weeks, he also has battled allegations--charges he claims are being orchestrated by Wright.

In March, Stephen R. Frank, a Simi Valley public affairs consultant and avowed Wright supporter, accused Braly of advocating the legalization of marijuana in 1980 when he headed a college Republicans group. Braly denied the allegation.

Last month another Wright supporter, Carl Olson, said Braly was involved in a GOP youth organization that co-sponsored a 1978 Los Angeles rally to drum up opposition to the Briggs initiative, a failed ballot measure that would have banned homosexuals from teaching jobs. Braly said he had “nothing to do with” the rally, although he opposed the initiative along with other top Republicans such as Ronald Reagan.

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Wright said her campaign had nothing to do with leveling the allegations, and Frank and Olson denied they were acting on her behalf.

But Braly described them as “surrogates” for Wright, whom he accused of instigating a “slimy smear campaign” against him.

Braly, who is unmarried, also said an “impeccable source” told him that Wright’s campaign was preparing direct-mail “hit pieces” suggesting he is homosexual, which he said is not true. Wright denied his allegation.

Braly claims Wright’s campaign is trying to smear him in order to divert attention from her ethics problems.

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“She thinks if she can convince the voters that we’re both no-good sons of bitches, they’ll vote to keep in the son of a bitch they know better,” he said.

Braly has repeatedly criticized Wright for her 1988 abstention during a GOP-backed vote to replace Assembly Speaker Brown with then-Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier). Braly said her refusal to support Calderon helped Brown retain his seat. Braly said Brown subsequently blocked a GOP drive to remove Wright from the powerful Assembly Rules Committee, which he had appointed her to.

Wright, however, said she was merely keeping her pledge never to vote for a Democrat, especially one like Calderon, a former top aide to farm worker leader Cesar Chavez.

Although both candidates consider themselves conservatives, Braly has taken positions on several high-profile issues that would please many moderates and liberals.

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For example, Braly supports abortion rights, while Wright is opposed. Wright voted against a recent bill imposing a 15-day waiting period on the purchases of rifles, but Braly said he supports such delays, designed to allow background checks for criminal records or mental problems.

Braly, who acknowledges he can’t beat Wright on the issue of ethics alone, also cites differences on development and the environment.

He singled out Wright’s vote supporting the powerful Building Industry Association in its appeal of a law that allowed five Santa Clarita Valley school districts to impose taxes on home builders to finance school facilities.

But Wright said she did so because the Legislature’s lawyer had warned that, unless the tax was overturned, the Legislature could lose its authority to regulate taxes imposed by school and special districts and cities and counties.

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Despite the fact that he is challenging a GOP incumbent, Braly has fared reasonably well in his fund-raising efforts, drumming up $123,000 between the beginning of 1989 and the campaign reporting period that ended March 17. But Wright still maintains a heavy fund-raising edge, taking in $277,000 in the same period.


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