Neophytes in Tight Race for Seat Long Held by GOP

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask Republican John Geranios why voters should elect him to represent the 43rd Assembly District and he starts gushing.

"I'm the absolute dream candidate for this district," he enthusiastically explains. "I'm a perfect match for the values of the voters here. . . . I'm fiscally conservative and I'm anti-illegal immigration."

Espousing such views in past was a sure ticket to winning the seat because the district, which encompasses Burbank, Glendale and parts of Los Feliz, has a history of electing Republicans, including incumbent James E. Rogan and former Assemblyman Pat Nolan.

But in this election year--when President Clinton leads Bob Dole in the polls and when voter records show an increasing Democratic edge in registered voters--the Democrats contend that they are positioned to break the Republicans' hold on the seat and that the polls back them up.

"I'm in a race that a year ago was considered to be a dead loser for any Democrat," said Scott Wildman, Geranios' Democratic opponent. "But this has turned into a horse race and we feel we're going to win it."

Dick Rosengarten, publisher of the political newsletter Calpeek, predicts Geranios will win the seat despite Democratic polls taken three weeks ago that show a neck-and-neck race. Rosengarten said Republican polls taken at the same time showed Geranios 6 to 10 percentage points ahead of Wildman.

Nonetheless, Rosengarten said the race was closer than many experts expected.

"For a month before the election for Geranios to be leading by such a slim margin is crazy," Rosengarten said. "John Geranios ought to be slaughtering Scott Wildman. Still, I fully expect Geranios to win."

For his part, Geranios has hinted that more recent polls by his campaign show his message is reaching voters. He has refused to reveal numbers, however, saying only, "We are where we need to be."

Though traditionally a Republican seat, the 43rd Assembly District has grown increasingly Democratic over the years. Recent voter records show that Democrats outnumber Republicans 45% to 39%. At nearly the same time four years ago, Democrats had outnumbered Republicans by only 43% to 42%.

"With each passing year this district becomes slightly more Democratic," said Steve Smith, political director for the California Democratic Party. "I think we're on the cusp this year of it becoming a Democratic district. But I think it will absolutely depend on who votes and who doesn't come Tuesday."

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While the tendency for Republicans to vote more faithfully than Democrats is well-known, what has not been established is the effect the presidential election will have on local races in which Democrats are eager to ride on Clinton's coattails.

"The Republicans will tell you there are no coattails and the Democrats will tell you the exact opposite," Rosengarten said. "That's the one big unknown this year."

Wildman and Geranios are vying for a seat vacated by Rogan, who is leaving after one term to run for Congress.

Both are not only political newcomers, but district newcomers as well.

The father of five children, Wildman, 45, previously operated his own print shop, was a fourth-grade teacher and represented various unions in Northern California until he moved to Los Feliz with his wife in November 1994. It was about this time that he went to work for United Teachers-Los Angeles.

Heavily backed by labor, Wildman has raised about $130,000, including $50,000 in contributions from the Democratic Central Committee. He is running on a platform that includes providing tax credits and other incentives to businesses to create jobs, putting more police officers on patrol and working to return local property tax dollars to the county.

He opposed last year's Proposition 187, which eliminates state services to illegal immigrants, and this year's Proposition 209, which would ban state and local affirmative action programs in public education, hiring and contracting. Wildman also believes the state's "three strikes" law needs to be studied.

Geranios, on the other hand, supports both immigration measures and the three-strikes law. He favors local control of schools and the breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District, putting welfare recipients back to work and streamlining the federal, state and local permit process to attract new companies to California and to help existing ones expand.

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In addition to a college planning and counseling business he started at 17, Geranios is a business professor at Mt. St. Mary's College in Brentwood. He moved from his home in the Hollywood Hills to his grandmother's home in Glendale in August 1995 and purchased a condominium in Glendale several months ago. His business has been in Burbank since 1992.

After hiring a top political consultant, Geranios beat out seven other candidates during a nasty GOP primary during which his company loaned his campaign between $400,000 and $450,000. After his primary win, he said his campaign was prepared to spend as much in the general election.

Since the primary, the 34-year-old has mended fences with his former opponents and has won endorsements from Rogan and the mayors of Burbank and Glendale, as well as backing from the law enforcement community. But he has ruffled feathers as well.

He drew criticism when he wrongly listed the California Peace Officers Assn. on his endorsement list. Geranios said the error was a typo and that he was endorsed by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

Geranios also angered Burbank Vice Mayor Bob Kramer when a company hired by his campaign violated the city's sign ordinance, which requires candidates to obtain permission before posting signs on private property. After the second violation, Kramer said Geranios promised that his signs would not be posted illegally again and asked Kramer, who is a Republican, for his endorsement.

"Within three to four days his signs were up all over again illegally," Kramer said. "I didn't endorse him."

And rumors persist that the right wing of the Republican Party opposes Geranios, who is an abortion-rights advocate, opposes repeal of the assault-weapons ban and has accepted a donation from a gay Republican group. Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle has put the word out to hard-liners to keep their mouths shut, according to Rosengarten, but not everyone has fallen into line.

A vocal critic of Geranios is Allen Brandstater, a GOP consultant and Glendale businessman who has not only endorsed Wildman but wrote a letter urging his fellow Republicans to join him in voting for the Democrat.

"He has integrity," Brandstater states in the letter regarding Wildman. "And while he and I don't agree on some issues, I know exactly where he stands. I respect that. Regrettably I can't say the same thing for his opponent John Geranios."

Geranios is quick to write Brandstater off as a "gadfly" and points to endorsements he has received from Burbank school board member Denise Wilcox and Glendale school board member Lynda Rocamora, who are both Democrats.

Even one of Geranios' former opponents in the primary election, congressional aide Pete Musurlian, predicts that in the end voters in his party will stand by Geranios, including the hard-line conservatives.

"They're going to vote for John Geranios and that's that," Musurlian said.

But the appearance of a rift has posed problems for Geranios, according to Rosengarten. It has also caught the attention of the Democrats who have been pouring resources into the area to beef up voting for the 43rd and several other key districts nearby that the party hopes to win.

"The rumors are that the Republicans are split and the Democrats are going to take advantage of it and put some big bucks behind Wildman," Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum said. "If they are it's still an outside chance that they will win because on paper Wildman doesn't fit the district."

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Geranios, who has described Wildman as an ultra-liberal union representative, contends that Wildman has misrepresented himself to voters. He cites a Wildman mailer that describes himself as a husband, teacher and businessman.

"He hasn't been in a classroom in years and he no longer owns a business," Geranios said. "He is a husband, I'll give him that."

To ensure that voters know where Wildman came from and where he stands on immigration, Geranios has sent a mailer focusing on Wildman's opposition to Proposition 187 and another that reads: "The San Francisco Liberals Held a Party for Assembly Candidate Scott Wildman . . ." The mailer also displays a copy of an invitation to a fund-raiser held for Wildman by two San Francisco Assembly members.

The Democrats recently fired back, sending a mailer that describes Geranios as "Totally Unqualified" and lists a slew of negative quotes about Geranios. The mailer adds: "The Closer You Look the Worse He Gets."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

43rd Assembly District

Scott Wildman

Age: 45

Occupation: A teacher who works for United Teachers-Los Angeles

Residence: Los Feliz

Party: Democrat

Education: Bachelor's degre, University of Colorado, teaching certificate, California State University, Hayward

Background: A union representative by trade, Wildman previously owned a print shop, which was destroyed in the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. He worked as a fourth-grade teacher in the Bay Area before making the transition to union representative. Wildman is married and has five children and six grandchildren.

Issues: Wildman supports community-based policing, increasing the minimum wage and a zero tolerance for weapons on school grounds. He sees investing in education and creating jobs as the key to a better future. Wildman would work to establish a business ad economic development council and to return local property tax revenues from the state.

John Geranios

Age: 34

Occupation: Small-businessman and business professor at Mt. Mary's College in Brentwood.

Residence: Glendale

Party: Republican

Education: Bachelor's degree, UC Berkely; MBA degre, Georgetown University; PHD, USC.

Background: In addition to teaching and serving as chairman of the business department at Mt. St. Mary's College, Geranios owns a college planning and counseling business that he started when he was 17. The business is in Burbank. Geranios is single.

Issues: Geranios favors jail time for convicted welfare frauds, the governor's 15% tax cut and local control of schools. In the Assembly, Geranios would work to establish a new "3-strikes and you're an adult" law to crack down on violent juvenile offenders.

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