SOUTH BAY / ELECTION GUIDE : Young Warrior Takes On a Battle-Tested Veteran : State Senate: David Barrett Cohen has tried to portray incumbent Ralph C. Dills as being out of touch. But the senator has profited from Cohen’s mistakes.


Republican David Barrett Cohen has hammered state Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-El Segundo) on his long tenure in office and on taking contributions from special interests. But it was a recent Cohen mailer that especially irked the 84-year-old Dills.

It featured Cohen holding a saxophone--long a Dills trademark--and included the slogan “Time to Change the Tune.”

“He’s holding that thing the wrong way,” Dills, once a professional sax player, said in his raspy Southwestern drawl.

Their race in the 28th Senate District is a classic matchup of a young insurgent and an entrenched, battle-tested incumbent. Also running are Peace and Freedom candidate Cindy Henderson and Libertarian Neal A. Donner.


Cohen, a 34-year-old Redondo Beach attorney, has tried to define his opponent as out of touch and beholden to political action committees that represent the liquor, gambling and tobacco industries.

Dills, meanwhile, has seized on his opponent’s fumbles. Most recently, Cohen charged that Dills collected a legislative pension while in the Senate. That turned out to be false, and Cohen sent a letter of apology. Dills filed a libel suit.

Making their battle more complex is the split personality of the 28th District, which was created when legislative lines were redrawn to include the beach cities and Torrance. The district’s eastern half--considered a Dills stronghold--includes blue-collar and ethnically diverse Compton, Carson and Wilmington.

“It looks very good for us,” said Tim Mock, Dills’ campaign coordinator. The anti-incumbent tide “is the only thing that worries me. I’m concerned about the voter turnout in the (eastern half)--if we don’t take that overwhelmingly and they don’t come out to vote.”


Said Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum: “The point is: Will there be so many votes in the Republican coast areas to counteract (the) east side (of the district)? For Cohen to have any chance, he has to win big in the beach cities and hold his own in the eastern end.”

As of Oct. 22, Dills had $83,816 in campaign funds, compared with Cohen’s $18,213. Since then, Dills has received an additional $104,829 in large contributions. Cohen has received $500. State Republicans won’t say whether they will invest in the final days of the race, and the Dills campaign has launched a blitz of mailers in the past week.

The registration in the district is 53% Democrat and 33% Republican, and Cohen has taken pains to distance himself from his party’s conservative wing. He favors abortion rights and opposes Proposition 187, the initiative that would deny many public services to illegal immigrants.

“I grew up thinking that Republicans didn’t care about the poor. I felt they were mean-spirited and greedy,” said Cohen, who was raised in a working-class section of Washington, D.C., and got a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a bachelor’s degree and a law degree.

He credits Jack Kemp with changing his mind in the mid-1980s. Kemp, then a New York congressman, ran for President in 1988 with a platform of “bleeding heart” conservatism that emphasized aid to urban areas. Cohen has adopted many parts of Kemp’s platform of enterprise zones and tax incentives to stimulate low-income areas.

“I’m the type of Republican people can respond to in this area,” Cohen said. “It seemed pretty much tailor-made for me.”

It’s also the same approach he took in his unsuccessful bid against then-Rep. Mel Levine, a Santa Monica Democrat, in 1990. Cohen did well in the South Bay areas of El Segundo and Manhattan Beach, but he was trounced by Levine in the Democratic strongholds of the Westside.

This time Cohen is trying to persuade longtime Democrats to cross party lines. In doing so, he is promoting his family’s multiethnic history--he is Jewish and half-Samoan and his wife, Radha, emigrated from India, prompting his slogan a “rainbow on the right"--as well as his ties to Carson’s Pacific Islander community. Among them are more than 200 relatives.


“Our family has sort of a weird, tortured history, but it is sort of the wave of the future,” he said.

For his part, Dills is fighting to retain his foothold in Carson. At a recent Carson parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing in the Philippines, Dills promoted his ties to Filipino Americans, including a scholarship that the United Filipino Service Organization gives in his wife’s name.

“As I see those of you my age, we’re not ready for the trash heap this soon,” said Dills to the war veterans. His opponent was in the crowd courting support as well.

Dills, who taught in Compton schools in the 1930s and 1940s, traces his judicial and legislative career to 1938. Resplendent in colorful ties (fuchsia and neon purple on a recent day), he recalls playing saxophone with Nat King Cole. Baseball great Duke Snider was one of his students in Compton.

But far from reminiscing on the trail, Dills has set out to highlight his accomplishments in the state Senate, where he is the presiding officer and chairs the powerful Government Organization Committee.

To appeal to residents of the beach cities, he trumpets his ties to environmentalists on the premise that the coastal residents are more eco-conscious. His endorsements include the California League of Conservation Voters, a group that had once chided him for pro-industry votes and recently gave him the “most improved score” on his Senate votes. He recently helped push through a bill banning offshore oil drilling in state tidelands.

“It’s the people’s will,” he says of his switch to “green” issues. “I’m in a new district. They’re the boss. (The oil companies) didn’t like it. But there was not a damn thing they could do about it.”

And then there’s the age issue. Dills spent almost $500,000 during the primary, blanketing the district with billboards that showed him tooting a sax and featured the slogan “Too Old to Quit.”


“This isn’t a footrace,” he says of his endurance. “I can vote. . . . I’m not the retiring type. I go to the funerals of those who exercise.”