By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It is a room full of miniatures: tiny kitchen stoves, little cash registers, midget chairs and tables. Is it a coincidence that this Lilliputian setting’s guest of honor has until recently been the ambassador to Micronesia? Diane Edith Watson is herself rather tall, however, and her 20 years in the state Senate have cast a very long shadow over L.A.‘s 32nd Congressional District, making her the front-runner in an improbably large field of 18 candidates seeking to replace Julian Dixon, the 12-term Democrat who died last December.
Watson’s visit to the Sixth Avenue Children‘s Center by Jefferson Boulevard was no coincidence, given her early background as an educator and L.A. school-board member. Most of Watson’s assembled supporters were African-American women of a certain age, and it was they who settled into the children‘s furniture to hear Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez endorse their woman. Half a dozen or so men stood in the back, whispering about news that Congresswoman Maxine Waters had just announced her support of Watson’s main rival, state Senator Kevin Murray. It was late March, and now every endorsement was opening wounds that might never heal.
The crowded race for the 32nd has unofficially become the second L.A. Marathon, with the eventual winner almost certain to be decided April 10, in the person of the top finisher in the Democratic primary. You‘d have to turn to Chicago’s 1st Ward or Manhattan‘s 15th Congressional District to find a more reliably Democratic electorate. (The district includes Mar Vista, Culver City, Koreatown, Exposition Park and the Crenshaw District, and is roughly 40 percent African-American and 30 percent Latino, with whites and Asians making up the rest.)
The field runs a broad and occasionally comic gamut of contenders, ranging from Green Party longshot Donna J. Warren to the irrepressible Ezola Foster, the retired John Bircher and Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party running mate last year. There‘s also GOP candidate Mike Schaefer, a Las Vegas resident and congressional hearse chaser who attempted to run in the 1998 special election for the late Sonny Bono’s Riverside County House seat, then made the ballot for district attorney . . . of San Francisco. Other Democratic hopefuls include nuclear-disarmament activist Tad Daley, businessman Philip A. Lowe, civil rights attorney Leo James Terrell and entertainment lawyer Kirsten Wonder Albrecht.
Local congressional elections receive about as much television coverage as the opera season. And because the contest won‘t affect the House’s balance of power, L.A.‘s media have paid even less mind to this overlooked district. Still, as political scientist and Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein says, ”This is a great prize -- a safe seat like this, with no term limits, doesn’t open up a lot.“
Whether Democrat, Republican, Reform or Green, most of the candidates ultimately fall under the more telling ”other“ category, and it is state Senator Kevin Murray and L.A. City Councilman Nate Holden whom Watson is battling in the autumn of her public-service career. Her biggest assets are her name-recognition, tenaciousness and local visibility. ”I live and work in my district, I shop at Crenshaw Plaza,“ she says in the dining room of her home, located on a tidy street not far from Leimert Park. ”I was born here and went to Dorsey High School with Julian Dixon. I have an open-door policy, and my number is in the phone book. People call at 2 o‘clock in the morning, and I answer.“
A February poll commissioned by Watson’s campaign showed her getting a 34 percent share of a hypothetical four-way vote over Holden (14 percent) and Murray (13 percent), with Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who ended up not entering the race, a distant fourth. The survey also showed that a three-way race would favor Watson with a 44-16-16 percentage-point edge over Holden and Murray, and a 55 percent to 19 percent lead when matched only against Murray. What‘s important to remember, though, is that the substantial remaining percentages in these polling breakdowns were classified as ”undecided“ -- and were counted before Murray’s campaign muscle began pulling in big endorsements.
Veteran political operative Parke Skelton, who is currently a consultant to mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa and who advised Adam Schiff in his successful bid to unseat Congressman James Rogan, believes this is ultimately Watson‘s race to lose. ”I’ve felt all along,“ Skelton says, ”that someone would have to go head-to-head with her to win, and that has not happened.“ And while Skelton thinks Watson is conducting a weak campaign, it is stronger than her losing battle against Yvonne Brathwaite Burke for a Board of Supervisors seat in 1992. Watson enjoys the highest profile in a race in which there have been no one-on-one debates with her main opponent, Kevin Murray.
Murray was an assemblyman when he was elected in 1998 to fill the termed-out Watson‘s District 26 Senate seat. (A former talent agent and entertainment lawyer, he could become the first congressman to evolve politically from William Morris to Capitol Hill.) He exudes an impatient energy and appears busy even while sitting still -- his hands fidgeting with a pen or plastic knife -- during interviews. The senator’s interests roam over a wide range of local subjects (like many Angelenos, Murray expresses fascination with professional publicity seekers Angelyne and Dennis Woodruff) and isn‘t shy about voicing his opinions. ”I never understood why everyone was crazy over Frank Sinatra,“ he said one afternoon over a tuna-fish sandwich and chips. ”They always talk about his ’phrasing,‘ but to me he was just a white guy trying to sing jazz. It was his arrangers who were great.“
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