Latino Impact Is Expected to Increase


Heading into the November general election, Latinos appear poised to expand their influence in the state Legislature, while Democrats emerged from Tuesday's primary confident they would retain control of the state Senate and Assembly.

Meanwhile, it appears that Assembly Republicans will increase their low numbers of women and minorities based on victories in safe GOP districts, a development that may nudge the generally conservative group more toward the middle.

"The Republican caucus in the Assembly will be more diverse and will contain significantly more women," said Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), a GOP campaign strategist. "Both of these [developments] bode well for the future of the Republican Party in California."

With the economy strong, voters appeared generally content with the status quo. Even as the California electorate again voted for a term-limits initiative--this one was advisory and aimed at members of Congress--voters reelected incumbents in every Senate and Assembly district where a veteran ran.

Come November, the lack of an anti-incumbent sentiment could help Democrats, who hold a 43-37 majority over Republicans in the Assembly, and control the Senate by a 22-16 margin, with an Independent and a vacancy.

"It looks like an incumbents' year," said Sacramento campaign consultant Wayne Johnson, who handles legislative races for many Republicans. "Voters were complacent. There wasn't a lot of anger. If they could have called off the election, they would have."

In another indication of the power of incumbency, every Assembly member except one who sought their party's nomination for a state Senate seat succeeded. The one exception lost to another Assembly member in a Bay Area contest.

Contentious Campaigns

The most notable example of an Assembly member moving to the Senate came in one of the most hard-fought races in the state. Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Murray of Los Angeles beat former Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson, despite Archie-Hudson's endorsement from Los Angeles County Supervisors Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and Zev Yaroslavsky.

Murray is all but assured of a victory in November in the heavily Democratic district that covers Culver City and parts of Los Angeles. He would replace 20-year veteran Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles).

Murray used his Assembly office to flood the district with tax-financed constituent mail, especially in recent months. Archie-Hudson, who was forced by term limits to give up her Assembly seat in 1996, tried to ridicule Murray by repeatedly sending voters mailers that featured photos of Murray's black Corvette.

"The negative campaigning didn't work," Murray said.

Murray said his endorsement by Rep. Maxine Waters shows that she remains influential, and he praised slate mailers prepared by his father, former Assemblyman Willard Murray.

A day after the polls closed, another hard-fought Senate primary remained too close to call as Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon held a slim lead over former Assembly Democratic Leader Richard Katz in the San Fernando Valley.

Several thousand absentee ballots remain to be counted.

Alarcon was boosted by a $180,000 donation from a political action committee controlled by Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), among the most powerful lawmakers in Sacramento. Alarcon used the money to pay for a harsh--and, at best, misleading--last-minute mail attack on Katz.

Even if Katz should overtake Alarcon, Polanco could end up strengthening his position and that of Latinos in the upper house because of other winners he backed.

For example, Polanco's political committee gave at least $50,000 to Assemblywoman Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), who won her primary for a Senate seat south of Oakland. Figueroa defeated fellow Assemblyman Michael Sweeney (D-Hayward).

Republicans in the Senate hope to win up to three more seats in November, said Brulte, but it won't be easy. "This is going to be grind-it-out, 10-yards-at-a-time trench warfare," he said.

One of those November fights will be waged in the Inland Empire, where Assemblyman Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino) won his party's primary to replace Sen. Ruben Ayala. He will face Republican Chino Mayor Eunice Ulloa, who is backed by Brulte.

In Assembly races, Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) made an usual decision to endorse 23 Democratic candidates running in open Assembly seats. Fortunately for him, the candidates he backed prevailed in all but two of 10 races in which there was competition.

Among Villaraigosa's losses, he endorsed Albert Martinez of San Bernardino, a parole officer with strong backing from the powerful prison guards union, in an Inland Empire district. Martinez lost to Rialto Mayor John Longville.

With more wins than losses, Villaraigosa pronounced himself pleased with the outcome, predicting that Democrats will field strong candidates in the November general election.

Lawyers Versus Business

Meanwhile, a new trial lawyer group that donated to 11 conservative Republicans ended up with only five winners. Business groups had been alarmed that trial lawyers, traditionally a big source of money for Democrats, were looking for allies among GOP lawmakers in the legislative fight over whether to expand the right to sue and limit attorney fees.

The main battle between lawyers and business came in an Orange County Assembly district, where Laguna Niguel Mayor Pat Bates won business support and defeated attorney Jim Lacy, who had received $80,000 from a new group, Conservative Attorneys for Civil Justice.

"The balance of power remains intact," said Barry Carmody, of the Assn. of California Insurance Companies, and Bates' brother.

Although Republican voting patterns in the lower house may not change dramatically, the GOP probably will have a significant number of Latino Assembly members when the new Legislature is sworn in after the November election.

The Latino Republicans who won their primaries--and are all but assured of victory in November--include Robert Pacheco of Walnut, Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, and Charlene Zettel, nee Gonzales, a businesswoman from Poway.

Zettel, 51, said she will be "proud to be the first Republican Hispanic woman to be elected to the Legislature." The only other current Latino Republican is Assemblyman Rod Pacheco of Riverside, who was elected in 1996.

Times staff writer Max Vanzi contributed to this story.

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