Karnette, Kuykendall in Tight Race in 54th District : Assembly: Rancho Palos Verdes mayor has mounted strong challenge to first-term Democrat. Incumbents are favored in other local races.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crime, schools, Proposition 187 and an unusual proposal to pay prison convicts to opt for the death penalty are some of the issues this year as 13 candidates vie for five South Bay seats in the California Assembly.

54th District

In the 54th Assembly District, which covers the Palos Verdes Peninsula, San Pedro, Long Beach and some adjacent areas, one-term Democratic incumbent Betty Karnette is facing a serious challenge from Republican Steven T. Kuykendall, the mayor of Rancho Palos Verdes. Democrats have only a small edge over Republicans within the district, 46% of registered voters to 41%.

As of Oct. 22, Karnette had raised $212,000 in contributions to Kuykendall's $187,000.

"I think I've got a good record (in the Assembly)," said Karnette, 63, a former public school mathematics teacher who in the last election staged an upset victory over 14-year incumbent Gerald Felando in the newly redrawn district. "I don't think there's any reason for anyone to support anyone else."

Karnette added, "Jobs, crime and education, that's what everybody is talking about." She said she opposes Proposition 187, which would deny a host of public services to illegal immigrants but supports stopping illegal immigration at the border.

"We've got a real horse race," Kuykendall, a disability-retired Marine Corps captain and a mortgage banker, said of the campaign.

He added that voters in the 54th District have a clear choice.

"We are two distinctly different people," Kuykendall, 47, said, describing himself as an advocate of more limited government than his opponent. He supports Proposition 187, calling it "a terrific vehicle for sending a message to the federal government" about illegal immigration, and opposes Proposition 186, the "single payer" health care initiative that would take health care out of insurance companies' hands.

"I'm not about to turn over one-seventh of this state's economy to the government," Kuykendall said. Karnette has not taken a position on Proposition 186.

Kuykendall won the Republican nomination after a bruising June primary race against restaurateur Jeffrey Earle, who has since thrown his support to Kuykendall.

Also vying for the 54th seat is Libertarian party candidate Al Carlan, 64, a retired aerospace executive who says his opponents are "Republi-crats" who take traditional views of government. Carlan says crime is a major issue; he favors decriminalizing drugs, releasing drug offenders from prison and using the space for violent criminals instead of building more prisons. He also favors abolishing parole.

Carlan said he initially favored Proposition 187 but now opposes it because "it's unconstitutional and we Libertarians support the Constitution."

Carlan has raised about $12,000 in campaign contributions and is using most of it for billboards telling voters, "You Have a Choice."

Another choice is Patrick John McCoy of the Peace and Freedom Party. McCoy, a 40-year-old public school teacher in Long Beach, supports raising taxes on large corporations and the wealthy, raising the minimum wage and developing more innovative jobs programs.

McCoy opposes the state's new "three strikes" law, which mandates 25 years to life in prison for a third felony conviction when a person has been convicted of two prior serious or violent crimes. "We're going to spend more money on prisons than we are on jobs," he said. "We have our priorities reversed."

51st District

In the heavily Democratic 51st Assembly District, which covers Inglewood, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Westchester and some adjacent areas, Democratic incumbent Curtis R. Tucker Jr. isn't worried about his reelection.

"I'm not focusing so much on my particular race," said Tucker, a two-term Assemblyman who believes his past service to his constituents--and a district where 72% of voters are registered Democrats--will allow him to breeze to victory over his Republican opponent. "I'm working on turning out our district for the top of the (Democratic) ticket."

Tucker opposes Proposition 187.

Tucker, 40, who was a legislative aide before being elected to the Assembly, has raised $232,000 in campaign contributions as of Oct. 22 and had spent $191,000, including a $10,000 contribution to the Assembly Democratic Victory Fund.

His Republican challenger, Adam Michelin, had raised $3,257 as of Sept. 30 for his campaign. He insists that Tucker may be overconfident.

"It's amazing how disgruntled the Democrats (in the district) are," said Michelin, 52. "I wouldn't say my chances are quite even money, but it's close."

Michelin, a political newcomer who founded a chain of child-care centers, has drafted a 29-page "legislative blueprint" in which he advocates reforming juvenile courts, limiting welfare to two years, putting priorities on government spending, and, in one of the more unusual proposals of the political year, offering any prison inmate who volunteers for the death penalty a cash payment, made to his estate, equal to 10% of the state's savings in incarceration costs.

"I haven't worked out all the details on that one yet," Michelin admitted. He added, "I'm not a career politician. I'm just a concerned citizen trying to make a difference."

Michelin supports Proposition 187.

52nd District

In the heavily Democratic 52nd District, which covers Lynwood, Paramount, Gardena, parts of Compton, Long Beach and south Los Angeles, and nearby areas, incumbent Democrat Willard H. Murray Jr. has a lock on his fourth and final term in the Assembly. (He must relinquish his seat at the end of his next term because of voter-mandated term limits.)

Murray's only opponent, Republican Richard A. Rorex of Gardena, withdrew in July after deciding to take a job with the U.S. Postal Service. Federal employees are prohibited from serving in partisan public offices. Rorex's name will still appear on the ballot.

53rd District

In the 53rd District, which stretches from Venice to Marina del Rey, Westchester and the South Bay beach cities, Democratic Assemblywoman Debra Bowen is running her first reelection campaign with the traditional perks of an incumbent--name recognition, political allies and a campaign war chest far larger than her opponent's.

Despite that edge, Bowen says she's not overconfident.

"I always run like I'm behind," she said. "It's part of my nature."

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a narrow 43% to 41% margin in the district.

In her first political campaign in 1992, she won a bitter race for the Assembly, garnering 55% of the vote to Republican Brad Parton's 41%.

Running on her Assembly record, Bowen, 38, notes that she wrote a bill that provides free computer access to state legislative information, such as legislators' voting records, the text of bills and their status. She also sponsored new laws to help businesses get variances from air-quality districts, to force state agencies to coordinate the oversight of toxic cleanups and to require the state to publicize condom reliability testing data.

Bowen's Republican opponent, commercial insurance agent Julian Sirull, 36, said one of his main qualifications is that he's not an incumbent politician. He hopes to benefit from Gov. Pete Wilson's reelection campaign and from the trend favoring Republicans nationally.

But Sirull acknowledges that he is not getting as much financial support from the Republican Party as he would like. As of Sept. 30, his campaign had $15,946 in the bank, far below Bowen's $79,546. He had spent $4,988, compared with $53,960 by Bowen.

Sirull said he would help businesses by seeking a cut in the corporate income tax and changing the workers' compensation system. The corporate tax rate, which is higher in California than in neighboring states, and workers' comp. are encouraging businesses to leave California, he said. He insists that any revenue lost would be offset by increased collections as a result of the generally improved business climate.

Also in the race are Libertarian candidate William Gaillard, a public works employee, and Peace and Freedom candidate J. Kevin Bishop, a cable installer.

55TH DISTRICT

In the 55th District, which includes Carson, Compton, Long Beach and Wilmington, Assemblywoman Juanita M. McDonald, 56, looks like a shoo-in. In a district where 69% of voters are registered Democrats, a primary bid by former Assemblyman Richard Floyd never materialized, and McDonald has no Republican opposition. Still, McDonald had raised $225,000 in campaign funds as of Oct. 22 and had spent $123,000. Libertarian Daniel O. Dalton has not invested more than $1,000 in the race.

Despite repeated calls from The Times, McDonald was not available to discuss her positions on the issues.

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