STATE SENATE : 3 Liberals Wage an Expensive Battle : 23rd District: Assemblyman Tom Hayden, longtime Sen. Herschel Rosenthal and PR consultant Catherine O'Neill engage in a firefight for Democratic voters.

This article was reported by Times staff writers Jeffrey L. Rabin, Tina Griego, Carlos V. Lozano and Patrick McDonnell. It was written by Rabin

After 10 years on the inside, Assemblyman Tom Hayden is running another insurgent campaign, this time for the state Senate. At stake in a bitter Democratic primary firefight is nothing less than the former anti-war activist's political future.

Stripped of a safe Assembly seat by redistricting, the Santa Monica Democrat opted to run for the upper house. Now, nine days before the June 2 election, Hayden is locked in a very expensive three-way battle against two liberal Democrats--veteran Sen. Herschel Rosenthal of Los Angeles and Pacific Palisades public relations consultant Catherine O'Neill.

The prize is the newly drawn 23rd Senate District that cuts across the Westside from burned-out businesses in Hollywood to beachfront homes in Malibu. It sweeps over the Santa Monica Mountains to take in the southern flank of the San Fernando Valley from hillside homes in Studio City to suburban subdivisions in Westlake Village.

The territory is so solidly Democratic--about 53%-- and liberal that no Republican ventured onto the ballot, meaning the winner of the primary will face only third party candidates in November.

The three combatants had raised a total of more than $1 million by the middle of this month, when the crucial closing days of the campaign still lay ahead.

Based on their $785,906 in spending through May 16, the race has the makings of being one of the most expensive legislative primary fights in the state.

The contest offers Democratic voters a sharp contrast in styles between Hayden, 52, a brash and outspoken activist, and Rosenthal, 74, a dedicated legislator who has never faced a serious challenge since being elected to the Assembly in 1974.

The wild card in the race is O'Neill, 49, who is seeking to make a political comeback 20 years after narrowly losing a bid to become the first woman elected to the state Senate. But O'Neill's absence from California for more than 10 years until she returned to Los Angeles last October has become an issue in the race.

Despite a decade in the Legislature, Hayden is running hard as an outside reformer who will take on the lobbyists and interest groups that he says have a stronghold on the state Capitol.

"There is a system out there that has to be shaken up and has to be changed," Hayden said. "It cannot be done by people who are already in the back rooms. It cannot be done by people who are too cozy with elements of the special interest state. We need a fresh break."

So far, Rosenthal has stayed above the fray, tending to legislative business in Sacramento and counting on a mail campaign that features endorsements from prominent political figures and community leaders. He is also the only Jewish candidate running in a district where an estimated one-third of the Democratic electorate is Jewish.

Rosenthal is running on his record as a liberal lawmaker with solid environmental credentials as a backer of alternative energy sources and clean fuels. Both he and Hayden have 100% environmental voting records and both have been endorsed by the Sierra Club.

O'Neill's campaign seeks to target women and voters angry at incumbents. "They've been there 28 years combined," she said. "They have had ample time to put forth any proposed positive solutions to anything that has crossed their mind that was necessary for California."

During the past two weeks, Hayden and O'Neill have been sharply critical of Rosenthal's refusal to appear at campaign forums and on a cable television debate.

They charge that Rosenthal has become a "stealth candidate" who is staying in Sacramento to escape the campaign. "The strategy is to keep Hersch in mothballs," Hayden said.

Rosenthal said he is just doing his job. "I feel an obligation to be in the Legislature dealing with the issues that are important to all of the people of California."

He fires back by accusing Hayden of absenteeism in the Assembly. "I think Mr. Hayden needs a work ethic," he said. "Where's he been? He has been around 10 years and because of his past history he has not been effective."

Crime and law and order have become prominent issues after the riots that left businesses in ruins in Hollywood and Koreatown on the district's eastern edge.

Hayden was the first to send out a mailer that offered his five-point program for rebuilding the city. Rosenthal responded last week with letters containing a get-tough-on-crime message. O'Neill is addressing the issue of crime and rebuilding the community in targeted mailers this weekend. She favors giving police wider authority to confiscate gang members' weapons.

Ironically, only Hayden, the most liberal candidate, supports the death penalty.

The campaign has become far more than a clash of personalties. It is nothing short of a shootout between Hayden's Santa Monica-based, grass-roots political movement and the Los Angeles Democratic organization headed by Democratic Reps. Henry A. Waxman and Howard L. Berman. The clash has produced a steady stream of mailers aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Democratic voters.

The latest campaign contribution reports filed Friday show that Rosenthal has raised more money than either challenger. Fueled by more than $125,000 in transfers from eight fellow Senate Democrats, plus a torrent of contributions from special interest political action committees ranging from labor unions to utilities, Rosenthal collected $448,085 from the beginning of the year to May 16. He also had the most money available--$182,296--as the campaign enters the home stretch.

By contrast, Hayden had raised $359,789 by the close of the reporting period last weekend. Despite continuing grass-roots support and backing from the entertainment industry, the vast majority of his campaign funds--over 80%--came from money loaned by himself or transferred from his political organizations. That includes $100,000 from Campaign California, a Hayden political operation endowed by the proceeds from his ex-wife Jane Fonda's initial workout tapes and records.

Determined to remain on the California political scene, Hayden pumped $161,000 of his own money into the campaign Tuesday, bringing his total loans to $339,000 and sharply increasing his cash on hand.

In a dramatic reversal of past trends in his Assembly races, Hayden received no money from Sacramento-based interest groups during the most recent reporting period.

O'Neill reported that she raised $179,083 since the year began, including at least $12,000 from women's political organizations, including the National Women's Political Caucus, the Women's Political Committee and the California arm of the National Organization for Women.

Although November is usually the moment of decision, the Hayden-Rosenthal-O'Neill clash is but one of four hotly contested state Senate races in Southern California likely to be settled June 2. In each case, the district's political makeup decidedly favors either Democrats or Republicans. These contested races are:

25th District

Inglewood, Hawthorne, Gardena, Lynwood, Compton, South-Central Los Angeles, Watts

75% Democrat, 15% Republican

The retirement of ailing state Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles) has led to a head-on clash between Assemblywoman Teresa P. Hughes (D-Los Angeles) and Lynwood City Councilman Paul Richards.

Hughes' low profile in the race has caused some concern among Democratic Party activists who are puzzled by the quietness of her campaign, particularly because the heavily black and Latino district is awash with Richards' giant signs that feature his color photo.

The veteran assemblywoman remains unfazed by their concern, noting that she closed down her campaign for two weeks after riots in the wake of the not guilty verdicts in the police beating of black motorist Rodney G. King. Hughes turned her campaign headquarters into a food distribution center.

Since the civil unrest, the issue in the contest has revolved around what caused the riots and what needs to be done. "Our community committed suicide," Hughes said. "It committed suicide out of desperation, desperation for jobs."

Richards has criticized Hughes' response to the riots, saying that not only did he help give out food, but he immediately sat down with city leaders to draft a plan to rebuild.

"The recent riot does demonstrate the failure of political leadership," Richards said at a recent forum. "People can't understand why we have so many African-American elected officials yet our community is in a state of decline. They don't understand that there is a difference between elected officials and elected leaders."

Hughes said she has yet to receive any financial assistance from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). Meanwhile, incumbent Greene is supporting attorney Richards, as is retiring Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton).

19th District

Los Angeles and Ventura counties

48% Republican, 40% Democrat

The retirement of popular state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) has sparked an all-out primary battle between two Republicans--former Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette and incumbent Assemblywoman Cathie Wright of Simi Valley.

The two lawmakers are considered the front-runners in a race that also includes Fillmore City Councilman Roger Campbell. The district, which stretches from the northwest San Fernando Valley to Oxnard in Ventura County, is heavily Republican.

Although their conservative philosophies and voting records are very similar, Wright and La Follette, who left the Legislature in 1990 after 10 years, have distinct political styles and personalities.

La Follette has won the endorsement of Davis, a former Los Angeles police chief, and political enemy of Wright. La Follette also has received the backing of law enforcement unions in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The former assemblywoman has accused Wright of having an "above the law" attitude because of Wright's efforts to intervene with authorities on behalf of her daughter, who was facing jail for 27 traffic tickets. La Follette said by enlisting the help of Speaker Willie Brown in helping her daughter keep her driver's license, Wright had become indebted to the Democratic leader.

Wright has dismissed La Follette's attacks as a desperate attempt to exploit a dead issue. Wright has labeled La Follette a political opportunist for recently moving from Orange County to Thousand Oaks to compete in the Senate race. Wright and her supporters have suggested that Davis recruited La Follette to run against her, a charge La Follette denies.

Campbell said he considers Wright and La Follette to be part of the political machine in Sacramento that is more interested in serving special interest groups than the average citizen.

37th District

San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties

49% Republican, 37% Democrat

In this vast district, which stretches from eastern San Diego County through eastern Riverside County to Imperial County, two incumbent Republican Assembly members, Carol Bentley of Santee and David G. Kelley of Idyllwild, are locked in a primary fight.

Bentley has an advantage in fund raising and is better known in the San Diego County portion of the heavily Republican district. She is stressing her legislative accomplishments, including several anti-crime bills, and her knowledge of San Diego area issues.

Kelley has been attempting to portray Bentley, a former legislative staffer, as a political insider in contrast to his background as a citrus grower and businessman. He is waging a vigorous uphill battle to expand his name recognition in the vote-rich San Diego area.

He derides Bentley, a longtime legislative staffer, as a consummate insider bereft of experience in "the real world." Bentley, armed with a slew of law enforcement endorsements, fashions herself as a law and order, anti-tax, pro-family legislative professional, in contrast to Kelley's rancher-lawmaker persona.

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