CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 52 : GOP Primary Remains Up for Grabs : Even Frank Hill, who gave up the seat when he won election to the state Senate, says a win by any of four or five candidates would not surprise him.


The election to choose a successor to Frank Hill in the 52nd Assembly District has turned into a wide-open race in which eight Republican candidates are scrambling for a winning strategy.

Two candidates call themselves the most conservative. One candidate is running as an environmentalist. Another has seized the ethics issue by refusing campaign contributions. And one is pitching an appeal to Asians and women.

The June 5 primary has even featured a couple of candidates challenging their foes to take drug and AIDS tests.

Hill, a Whittier Republican who gave up the Assembly seat in March when he won election to the state Senate, said the contest is so even that he would not be surprised by a win by any of four or five of the candidates. Hill said he told candidates when the campaign began that if anyone could pull away from the field, he would consider offering his help “to go the last 20 yards.”


But, Hill said, no one has emerged as a clear leader, so he will not endorse.

Political experts estimate that as few as 12,000 votes will be enough to win a Republican primary split so many ways. There are 78,000 registered Republicans.

The district stretches from La Mirada and Whittier across the Puente Hills to include Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Diamond Bar, Walnut and part of West Covina. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 48% to 43%, making the Republican nominee a favorite to win the seat in November.

The only Democrat on the ballot, Diamond Bar marketing consultant Gary Neely, is preparing a vigorous campaign.

When the contest began, Wayne Grisham, who has served in Congress and the Assembly, was acknowledged as the most widely known candidate. But he entered the race carrying the stigma of losses in his last two election tries. Never regarded as an aggressive campaigner, Grisham has been even more subdued this time, running such a low-key campaign that opponents say he has lost his early advantage.

Kenneth R. Manning, a member of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board, has the most endorsements from party leaders, and some opponents see him as the candidate to beat.

Diamond Bar Councilman Paul Horcher is the only other current elected officeholder in the race. Others mounting strong efforts are Wil Baca, a civil engineer and businessman known for his work on environmental issues; Tony Russo, a young political aide who has helped run election campaigns for Hill and Grisham, and Phil Mautino, who has been active in civic affairs in the Republican stronghold of Whittier.

Less visible campaigns are being run by Jim Baker, a board member of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., who has declined campaign contributions, and Jack Dortignac, a West Covina construction foreman making his first bid for public office.

In a move that other candidates called silly, Russo challenged all candidates a few weeks ago to take drug tests. He released the results of his own tests, which declared that the only medications he had taken in the previous 30 days were “vitamins, coffee and diet soda” and that he was drug-free.

Russo said Grisham was the only candidate who accepted the challenge by taking a drug test. Horcher has said he would take the test if Russo would pay for it, but Russo has not complied.

In response to Russo’s challenge, Manning said that perhaps candidates should also take tests to screen for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Manning said he made the remark because candidates are out in the community “shaking hands and kissing babies.”

Horcher said that Manning’s remark was a “very cruel and insensitive thing to say” and that it reflected a lack of compassion for people with AIDS and a lack of knowledge about the disease.

Russo has also assailed Manning for his comments. Russo said drug tests are relevant because drug use can impair job performance, but he fails to see how a test for AIDS would have any significance.

In trying to break out of the pack, each candidate has targeted his appeal in a way that invites labels.

Baca, 49, is clearly the environmentalist. He has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters and Californians Against Waste. In the past, Baca has used his tenacity and engineering expertise to lead fights against expansion of the Puente Hills landfill and construction of trash incinerators and to promote recycling statewide.

He grew up in New Mexico and came to California in 1962 with a new bachelor’s degree in engineering. Baca worked for several aerospace companies before starting his own consulting business. Although he continues to do engineering work, much of his income today comes from marketing products from his family’s chili business in New Mexico.

Opponents have labeled Baca a single-issue candidate whose emphasis on the environment is too extreme for most Republicans. Manning said Baca is “without a doubt the most fanatic environmentalist. He is willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the environment.”

Baca said when he stresses the environment, he is not talking about protecting the spotted owl or the desert tortoise but about improving the quality of life in a district that has the “world’s worst air,” four dumps, contaminated ground water, traffic congestion and overcrowding.

Baker, 61, a mortgage loan representative who lives in Hacienda Heights, announced at the start of his campaign that he would not accept donations because “the people are fed up with money politics.”

As a board member and committee chairman for the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., Baker has led efforts to deal with blight and gangs. His other concerns include limits on immigration and controls on spending.

Dortignac, 33, is stressing his concern about family issues. He has seven children ranging from infancy to 10 years old.

He said he wants to strengthen parental rights so that children cannot be taken out of homes based on anonymous allegations of child abuse. He also wants to work against pornography, which he says is destructive to family life. He is a strong opponent of abortion and would seek to permit it only in cases in which the mother’s life is at stake. He opposes abortion in cases of rape or incest.

Grisham, 67, is attempting a political comeback. He served briefly as director of the Peace Corps in Kenya, then moved to Norwalk and ran for an Assembly seat, which he won in 1984 and again in 1986. Then, he tried to move up to the state Senate but lost a special election in 1987. He was defeated for reelection to the Assembly in 1988.

Since then, Grisham has returned to the real estate business in La Mirada, his longtime home. He has plastered the district with signs saying “Wayne Grisham Is Back,” but he has missed candidate forums and said he plans to spend just $25,000 to $30,000 on his campaign, which is considerably less than Russo, Horcher, Mautino and Manning say they have budgeted.

Grisham said he is counting on voters remembering his past political service. “I know what needs to be done,” he said. “Voters were happy with the job I did.”

Mautino, 50, a lawyer whose law office is in Whittier, is stressing his experience. “I’ve had a slice of life,” he said. “I’ve been president of a YMCA, president of a bar association, founded the historical society in Whittier, been on the board of a hospital, moderator of a church with 700 members. That is what I put on the table, my community involvement.”

Mautino grew up in West Los Angeles, where his father was a motion picture cameraman. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from UCLA and a law degree from USC. He came to Whittier in 1967 as a law clerk for Keith Miller, who was then a Whittier councilman, and two years later became Miller’s law partner.

He has put $43,000 of his own money into his campaign and said he is prepared to spend “as much money as it takes.”

Unlike many Republicans, he favors public financing of campaigns: “We’re going to have to have public financing unless you want just wealthy people in the legislature. The costs are just incredibly high.”

Mautino is the only candidate identified with Whittier, which has the district’s largest Republican registration. But other candidates who have been campaigning door to door in Whittier point out that Mautino does not live there but in neighboring La Habra Heights.

Horcher, 38, is stressing his experience as an officeholder. He was elected twice to the Diamond Bar Municipal Advisory Council and was elected to the City Council when Diamond Bar incorporated last year. Horcher practices law in Hacienda Heights.

He said he has put $100,000 of his own money into his campaign and expects to spend twice that amount. He has hired Harvey Englander, an experienced political consultant, to manage the effort.

Horcher has proposed that the state require welfare recipients to take drug tests. Those who tested positive would not be denied aid but would be channeled into drug treatment programs so tax dollars would not be used to buy drugs, he said.

Horcher is targeting his campaign at women and Asians. His wife emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, and Horcher has many business and personal contacts in the Asian community, which represents a potential of about 4,500 votes in the Republican primary. Horcher and Baca have emphasized their support of abortion rights.

Horcher has the advantage of being the only candidate from one of the larger cities in the district, Diamond Bar, but he is a controversial figure there. His colleagues on the council removed him as mayor pro tem in February in a political dispute.

Manning, 37, is running a campaign that stresses his service to the community and to the Republican Party and his 11 years on the school board. He said he regards himself as the conservative candidate, citing as credentials his endorsement by the California Republican Assembly, the Young Americans for Freedom and such lawmakers as Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) and Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach).

Manning said he has been working in politics since 1960, when as an 8-year-old he helped his father, Travis (Tag) Manning, run for the Assembly. Tag Manning is now running his son’s campaign, and their political consultant is a longtime friend, Stu Spencer, who was a political adviser to President Reagan.

Manning said his experience on the school board will be especially helpful in Sacramento. “Conservatives need to take control of the development of policy in education,” he said.

His top priority, he said, would be to equalize funding among school districts, which has been skewed since the passage of Proposition 13 severely limited property taxes in 1978. The Hacienda La Puente district, for example, receives $800 less per pupil than some other districts because of a state funding formula designed to compensate schools for the revenue they lost under Proposition 13, he said.

Russo, 27, is the youngest candidate. His opponents contend that he lacks experience.

“The obvious attack against me is that I am 27 years old and I look 19,” Russo said. “But the fact is that I’ve probably done more in public service than any of the other candidates. I’ve worked for three Republican legislators. I’ve been to Washington. I’ve worked in Sacramento. . . . I know that I can go to Sacramento and start doing more good for the district than anyone else, simply because I know how Sacramento works.”

Russo said his interest in politics began during his junior year at La Mirada High School, when he was selected to work as a congressional page for six months. He went on to earn degrees in political science, public affairs and public administration at USC, worked for Hill in a fellowship program and later served as chief of staff to Grisham and Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove).

He worked on Hill’s Senate campaign from November to March and then began his own race for the Assembly.