ELECTIONS / ASSEMBLY : Newcomer Takes On 'the Machine' : Politics: John J. Duran wants to be part of the Berman-Waxman alliance, but he is challenging its candidate, Burt Margolin, in the 42nd District.


John J. Duran says he wants to be part of the Berman-Waxman political organization. It could happen, but the West Hollywood attorney may not have chosen the best way to go about it.

Duran, 32, who led the gay and lesbian community's ultimately futile effort to ban job discrimination on grounds of sexual preference, is challenging five-term Assemblyman Burt Margolin in the Democratic primary Tuesday in the Westside-San Fernando Valley 42nd Assembly District.

"My fantasy is that the Berman-Waxman-Margolin . . . machine absorbs us," he said last week. "I've been told the way not to do that is to run against them."

"It's not the best way to introduce yourself to someone, to file papers to run against him," agreed Margolin, a stalwart of the liberal-leaning political alliance that has dominated Westside politics for two decades.

An activist on health care issues like his mentor, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Margolin would rather be going to Washington after the close of this political season.

Instead, he is running yet again for the Assembly, largely because the reapportionment game of musical chairs left him with no suitable congressional seat to seek.

"You have to have an opponent you're prepared to oppose," said Margolin, 39. He said the records and popularity of Reps. Waxman, Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles) left him no one to challenge.

This leaves a return to Sacramento, where Margolin heads the Assembly Insurance Committee and was a co-author, with Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles), of the gay and lesbian rights legislation known as AB101. Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the measure last year, saying it would hurt small businesses.

"I've worked as hard as I can to promote justice for the gay community and advance the agenda for equal protection under the law that that community, appropriately, considers important," Margolin said.

Duran, although he remains a long shot by anyone's measure, has raised a respectable $55,000-plus in contributions. With the money, he is running a technologically savvy campaign based on videotape mailers and computerized lists designed to identify voters likely to support gay candidates.

The videotape, which prominently features an endorsement of Duran by Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, has been sent to 20,000 homes in areas that were not part of Margolin's old district. So far, Duran has refrained from any sharp attacks on Margolin.

Even if he fails this time, Duran said he plans to try for the 42nd District seat again in 1994 and, if necessary, again two years later, when Margolin will be barred by Proposition 140 from seeking reelection.

Duran said he thinks that now is the time to make a run for office, and that the newly redrawn district--which stretches from Westwood to Hollywood and across the Hollywood Hills to include part of Studio City and Sherman Oaks--is the place to do it.

Part of his reasoning was spelled out in a fund-raising letter addressed to prospective donors in the gay community. "I will be an aggressive and effective advocate for our rightful share of political power," he said. "We have settled for too little for too long."

Duran said he is as qualified to represent the interests of the district as a whole as well as Margolin has been in representing the interests of West Hollywood and the homosexual community.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in the Eastside suburb of Pico Rivera, Duran attended Catholic schools. He worked his way through Cal State Long Beach and law school at Fullerton's Western State University with a job at Disneyland--as the man who narrates the trip and shoots the hippos on the jungle boat ride.

After winning some notice as an attorney for an Orange County gay pride festival and running unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for a state Senate seat in a strongly Republican district in 1990, Duran moved from Orange County to West Hollywood last October.

He said he has been active in politics since 1987, when he joined the Life Lobby, which lobbies on AIDS and gay rights issues. Becoming state chairman in 1988, he acknowledges working "very closely" with Assemblymen Margolin and Friedman.

But the reapportionment struggle was "very frustrating" for gay and lesbian political activists, Duran said, as they were left "very much on the outside" when decisions were made within the Berman-Waxman alliance on which incumbent would run for what seat.

"We said we are either being taken for granted or we're not being taken seriously as electable candidates," Duran said. "We have to run."

"Our first priority is to elect well-qualified gay and lesbian people to office, and that's always a first priority over a friendly incumbent," added Scott Hitt, the informal head of a gay and lesbian political fund-raising alliance called ANGLE.

So far, Margolin does not appear to feel very threatened by the challenge. He declined to appear with Duran on a cable TV show earlier this month, citing the press of business in Sacramento.

"As best as I can tell, there's not an issue difference between the two of us," Margolin said.

Margolin's campaign has been generally low-key so far, and generally modest in budget. He started the year with about $14,000 on hand, and as of mid-May had added $52,000 more and spent $40,000. That does not include the proceeds of a major fund-raising dinner held last week at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Margolin first won election to the Assembly in 1982. Before that, he worked as chief of staff for Waxman's Washington office and as a legislative staffer in Sacramento.

Among his legislative credits is his sponsorship of the state's beverage container recycling program. He has also sought to revamp worker's compensation and health insurance.

Worker's comp, he said this week, is "a system that's riddled with fraud and abuse, and we are capable of fixing it this year."

On health care, he said, proposals for universal coverage have been getting farther in the Legislature every year. Former Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed one such bill in 1990, Margolin said, but he has hopes of getting Gov. Pete Wilson to accept a version that would protect small employers from drastic premium hikes.

Margolin also called for increased funding for health care and education, saying money could be found to finance increased programs by closing loopholes, such as the lack of a production tax on oil producers, and by making reasoned appeals for tax increases linked to specific projects such as prenatal care.

"I've seen how government squanders dollars," he said. "You can't simply ask people to throw money at problems without showing them how these dollars produce results."

The 42nd District also has a contested Republican primary. Robert K. Davis, a contractor and West Hollywood human services commissioner, is running against Chauncey J. Medberry, a Los Angeles businessman. But the Democrats' 2-1 voter registration edge limits the chances of the GOP nominee.

Also on the ballot are Libertarian Andrew S. Rotter, a historian and retired lawyer, and Peace and Freedom candidate Timothy Burdick, an office worker.

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