ELECTIONS / STATE ASSEMBLY : Economic Ills Biggest Issue in Close 55th District Race : Politics: Three Democrats--all officeholders--are slugging it out for the Assembly seat in this predominantly minority and working-class area.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there is a local legislative district where the issues of employment, education, the environment, and law and order all weigh heavily, it may be the new 55th Assembly District.

Stretching from Compton to Wilmington and encompassing all of Carson and North Long Beach, the overwhelmingly Democratic district has its pockets of prosperity--nice, middle-class neighborhoods where the schools are good, the streets are safe and homeowners feel secure.

But generally, the 55th is a caldron of economic and environmental woes. Its residents, a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds, are predominantly working class, many of them looking for work. Its neighborhoods and schools are often tough places, struggling in the shadows of big, polluting industries such as refineries that for years have wreaked havoc on the environment.

That is the 55th District, and when the June 2 election is held, it is hard to know which issues will sway voters in a race that appears to be too close to call.

Because the district was drawn during reapportionment, there is no incumbent, but three Democratic candidates are already officeholders: 14-year Assemblyman Dave Elder of North Long Beach, 12-year Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd of Carson and first-term Carson Councilwoman Juanita McDonald. There are no Republicans running, and the only other person on the ballot is Libertarian Shannon Anderson of Long Beach.

To hear Elder tell it, voters have only one thing on their minds this election year. "The three issues of this campaign are jobs, jobs, jobs," Elder said. "In any order you want."

Perhaps. But both Floyd and McDonald assert that voters have a much greater list of concerns about their district in particular, and government in general.

For his part, Floyd said, the 55th is an example of a have-not district neglected by both government and business because many of its residents are poor and minorities.

"We got gang problems, job problems, environmental problems," Floyd said. "This whole area has one thing in common: It ain't the high-rent district and it's heavily minority." Floyd described the area's glut of polluted land and industries as toxic-waste racism.

McDonald, meanwhile, contends that the biggest single issue for voters is new leadership. "Given the mood of the city, the state and the nation, constituents are tired of incumbents," she said. "They want fresh faces, new ideas and new energy. I am the outsider who can furnish them with all of that."

McDonald's claim of being an outsider is only partially correct. She is an incumbent councilwoman in the only city--Carson--that is totally included in the 55th Assembly District. Carson residents make up nearly a third of the district's 53,000 Democratic households. Moreover, McDonald, like Floyd, has been endorsed by one of the area's preeminent political insiders, Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), who is not running for reelection.

But McDonald, a 53-year-old Los Angeles city school district administrator, can lay claim to the description of outsider compared to Elder and Floyd.

"With 25 years collectively (in the Assembly), they have not served their constituents," McDonald said. "They have been there a long time with no type of results."

Her pledge: to do more to improve schools and provide better opportunities for women and minorities--two groups of voters that McDonald figures to entice.

As the only minority candidate in the race, McDonald, who is black, is expected to be competitive in a district where 1990 Census figures show a mix of ethnic backgrounds: 41% Latino, 23% African-American, 19% white and 17% Asian. Voter registration figures, according to McDonald's son and campaign manager, Keith McDonald, show that African-Americans constitute almost one-third of the district's voters.

But McDonald's path to victory is hardly assured. She is, after all, a relative political newcomer who may be seen by some voters as too eager for higher office after only two years on the Carson council.

"A lot of people I talk to resent the fact that they worked very hard to make her the first black councilwoman on the Carson council and that, in her first election after that, she is proposing to abandon them and move on to something else," Elder said.

Floyd criticized McDonald's use of a top Dymally aide, Kenneth Orduna, as a campaign adviser. Last year, Orduna's 1987 campaign for the Los Angeles City Council came under criticism by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which fined Orduna and his 1987 treasurer $187,500--the FPPC's second-largest fine ever--for alleged campaign law violations.

"Miss McDonald (is) a nice lady . . . but she is being managed by the infamous Ken Orduna organization," Floyd said, adding that if the FPPC had the power to issue criminal sanctions, Orduna and others "wouldn't be doing anything today but making license plates."

Floyd's remarks were typical of his tough, in-your-face political style. And both he and his campaign manager say Floyd's reelection hopes hinge largely on his reputation as a fighter, someone who likes to mix it up, as he did when he wrote the controversial mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists.

"Dick's been in the Assembly for 12 years . . . (and) he has been controversial because he takes on almost anybody," said campaign manager Paul Kinney. "He's not afraid of anybody. I mean, this is a guy who stood at the footsteps of the Capitol and told 500 angry motorcyclists to come up and he would take them on."

Floyd's strategy is evident in his campaign brochures and billboards, which show a boxing glove punching through a wall with the words: "Floyd Fights for Us."

That combative style has figured prominently during Floyd's years in the Assembly, where he has won strong support from organized labor for, among other things, fighting former Gov. George Deukmejian's bid to wipe out Cal-OSHA.

In this campaign, Floyd's bruising style has been evident in his fight to halt a 157-acre Carson development because he says its site, the former Cal Compact Landfill, is a toxic nightmare.

Floyd also has taken aim at Elder's push to reopen San Pedro's old Todd Shipyards--an action that Floyd calls unlikely because of the economy and America's troubled shipbuilding industry.

"I think that Dave Elder is pandering to the voters by offering them some promise and hope . . . that he will single-handedly reopen Todd Shipyards," Floyd said. "Well, it ain't going to happen. He knows it ain't going . . . (and) my view is that if you are going to sell somebody a promise, sell them a lottery ticket."

But Elder, who like Floyd has worked with the ship workers union to reopen Todd, contended that Floyd's statement shows he is only willing to fight some battles, not all.

"Dick is Dick. We don't operate on the same wave length," Elder said. "I am not focusing on gambling, horse racing, tobacco and sports betting. I don't think people sent me to Sacramento to be an expert on gaming. They sent me here . . . to provide what I can for their economic security."

That security, Elder said, would be enhanced greatly by reopening the shipyard, a once-bustling facility that closed in 1989 but for years employed upward of 6,000 workers.

For months, Elder has made the shipyard his cause celebre, meeting with groups interested in the site and urging city officials from the Los Angeles Harbor Commission to Mayor Tom Bradley to do what they can to reopen the yard. And now, in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, Elder said he is more convinced than ever that Bradley will use his clout to reopen the site.

To be sure, Elder has not based his campaign solely on the shipyard. During numerous appearances in the district and in campaign literature, the 50-year-old assemblyman has touted his authorship of new safety laws for pipelines, efforts to get the state's largest pension fund to invest only in California, and other issues.

Also a longtime ally of organized labor, Elder has been endorsed by many prominent local Democrats, including Los Angeles school board member Warren Furutani, Compton Mayor Walter R. Tucker III and former Carson Mayor Vera Robles DeWitt.

55th Assembly District

Communities: Compton, Carson, Wilmington, Willowbrook, and parts of Long Beach, Dominguez andLos Angeles.

Population

Latino 150,105 41% African-American 86,017 23% Asian 62,697 17% Non-Hispanic white 70,784 19% Total 369,603 100%

Party registration

Democrat 80,014 68% Republican 24,942 21% American Ind. 1,473 1% Green 116 * Libertarian 399 * Peace & Freedom 1,019 * Miscellaneous 239 * Declined to state 10,145 8%

Number of registered voters: 118,347

Candidates:

Democrat

Dave Elder, incumbent assemblyman

Richard E. Floyd, incumbent assemblyman

Juanita McDonald, Carson city councilwoman

Republican

none

Libertarian

Shannon Anderson, transportion manager

* Less than 1%

Source: Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office and Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning.

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