CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / LEGISLATURE : Law Enforcement Resumes Reflect Importance of Crime Issue

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With crime as a driving issue, a growing number of candidates who wear the badge of law enforcement are seeking Assembly and Senate seats in the June 7 primary election.

Capitalizing on mounting public fears about crime, 18 candidates with law enforcement backgrounds--double the number four years ago--are among those running in the primary for all 80 Assembly seats and half of the 40 seats in the state Senate.

"Crime is the mother of all issues for this election, so you are seeing a lot of law enforcement candidates or candidates who have past law enforcement experience," said Ray McNally, a veteran Republican legislative campaign strategist.

"This is the season of fear," he said. "People are afraid of becoming victims of criminals."

Crime is not the only issue on the minds of voters. Other concerns include the rising number of illegal immigrants, persistent joblessness, performance of public schools and political corruption in the Legislature.

Even before the balloting begins next month, the primary lineup reflects another massive exodus of veteran lawmakers. Among the newcomers are expected to be more women, Latinos and Asian Americans.

Prompted in large measure by a voter-imposed term limit initiative, 29 legislators are either seeking higher office or retiring. Twenty-two are in the Assembly, where incumbents are limited to three two-year terms, and seven are in the Senate, where incumbents are restricted to two four-year terms.

So far, term limits have had a mixed impact--luring an influx of fresh faces to Sacramento, but failing to dramatically reduce political partisanship as the newcomers promised they would attempt to do when they arrived in the Capitol.

Coupled with the redrawing of legislative district lines to reflect 1990 census changes, term limits are expected to continue to expand the ranks of ethnic and minority groups.

The 11-member Latino caucus should pick up several new seats, including a new Los Angeles Senate seat being sought by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). But the Latino community is badly split on his replacement in the strongly Democratic district, with Polanco endorsing his aide Bill Mabie, who is white, and others favoring Antonio Villaraigosa, a Latino teacher representative.

It is also expected that the 29 female members of the Assembly will build on gains made during the much-heralded 1992 "year of the woman" in politics. Democrats have high hopes for Susan Davis, a former San Diego school district trustee, to win the seat held by retiring Assemblyman Mike Gotch.

The primary serves as a preliminary to the main election bout in November, when Democrats will be attempting to extend their 23-year-long reign in both houses of the Legislature.

In the Assembly, the party lineup is 47 Democrats and 33 Republicans.

Even Republican lawmakers concede that it is unlikely they will gain more than two or three seats. With Democrats retaining control, Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who is seeking a final term in the Assembly, would probably remain for another two years as the Assembly's leader--a position he has held since 1980.

"I think there's a good likelihood that we'll stay where we are or the numbers won't change much at all," said Gale Kauffman, the Assembly Democratic campaign strategist.

But in the Senate, things could be different.

Democrats hold a 22-16 majority over Republicans. Two other members are independents. Of the 20 seats in even-numbered districts up for grabs this year, 15 are held by Democrats, including several who are retiring rather than seeking reelection from marginal districts.

So, new President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) faces a much more daunting task than Brown as Republicans mount stiff, well-financed challenges around the state.

The force behind the GOP effort is Rob Hurtt, an upstart, rookie senator from Orange County. In the past two years, Hurtt has joined with three other Christian businessmen to lavish $3.6 million on conservative candidates and causes. He is the Senate GOP point man on campaign strategy and one of the architects of the party's plan to win a Senate majority.

In a demonstration of his deep pockets, a political action committee founded by Hurtt loaned $100,000 to right-wing Republican freshman Assemblyman Ray Haynes in late 1993 for his bid to move up to the Senate this year.

Haynes is battling longtime Riverside County Sheriff Cois Byrd for the GOP nomination to run in a Riverside-area district. That contest could become one of the most high-profile tests of the ability of a lawman to draw votes in a legislative contest.

The seat is being vacated by Democrat Robert Presley, who is running for the State Board of Equalization.

The recent trend of trying to trade on law enforcement credentials is not without precedent. Presley is a former Riverside County undersheriff. Probably the best known former law enforcement officer to have served in the Senate in recent years was former Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis, who retired as a lawmaker in 1992.

That year, two Republicans with strong police backgrounds captured Assembly seats. They were Richard K. Rainey, a former Contra Costa County sheriff, and Larry Bowler, a retired Sacramento County sheriff's lieutenant. Two years earlier, Democrat Tom Umberg of Santa Ana, a former assistant federal prosecutor, won his Assembly seat. Umberg is now running for attorney general.

This year, another primary shootout in which law enforcement credentials are likely to be a decisive factor is over the Assembly seat left vacant by the resignation of Pat Nolan, the Glendale Republican who pleaded guilty to political corruption charges.

In the Glendale-Burbank district, voters have seen a spirited contest among Democrat Adam Schiff, a former assistant federal prosecutor, Republicans Peter Repovich, a Los Angeles police officer, and James E. Rogan, a Municipal Court judge. Earlier this month, Rogan, pitching himself as tough on crime, won a special election to fill the remaining few months of Nolan's term.

Likewise, in a neighboring swing district, Democrats are pinning hopes in November on Bruce Philpott, a retired police officer who served as Pasadena police chief for two years, to oust freshman Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), who has had an undistinguished first term in office.

Democratic strategist Kauffman said Philpott's resume was tailored for such a district in which Democratic and Republican voter registration is evenly matched.

"We are fighting in (such) districts we wouldn't fight in before," she said. "So that has made us look for different kinds of candidates and in the Hoge seat a law enforcement candidate is ideal."

In the primary, at least three Democratic incumbents face serious intraparty challenges.

They are Sen. Ralph C. Dills of El Segundo, the dean of the Legislature, who is opposed by three Democrats, including Torrance City Councilman George Nakano, who is bidding to be the first Japanese American to serve in the Senate.

On the Assembly side, two new Democratic women lawmakers are battling to save their seats.

Rookie Assemblywomen Diane Martinez of Rosemead, who quickly gained a reputation among her colleagues for outspoken remarks, is opposed by Monterey Park City Council member Judy Chu and Garfield High School teacher Roy Torres. The district is strongly Latino but also heavily influenced by growing numbers of Asian Americans.

In Northern California, rookie Assemblywoman Vivien Bronshvag of Kentfield in Marin County is facing Kerry Mazzoni, a member of the Novato school board.

Some of the liveliest primaries are in districts in which one party has a strong majority, meaning that the main competition is in the June primary.

Three such contests are developing among Democrats in districts that touch on the Westside, the home turf of the political organization headed by Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

In one pitched battle in the West Hollywood area, nine candidates, including a raft of locally elected officials, are vying to succeed Assemblyman Burt Margolin, who is running for state insurance commissioner.

In a neighboring Santa Monica-centered seat, Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood) is campaigning to become a Superior Court judge. His departure has sparked a lively Democratic primary field of nine candidates, including lawyer and former television actress Sheila Kuehl. On the Republican side, one aspirant, Michael T. Meehan, is a reserve deputy sheriff.

The third strongly Democratic seat up for grabs is held by Assemblywoman Gwen Moore, who is trying to move up to the secretary of state's post. Her exit has drawn a field of 13 hopefuls, including Kevin Murray, son of Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount).

Family ties may also play a role in what is expected to be a GOP donnybrook to succeed retiring conservative Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach). Among the four candidates is Thomas G. Reinecke, a businessman and son of former GOP Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke.

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.

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