Voting Tuesday May Turn Free-for-All Into 2-for-All
By Lou Cannon
A special congressional election in a key California district has turned into a wide-open, three-cornered, long-distance race that simultaneously features some of the most prized and most abhorred qualities of American politics.
Voters in this sprawling district on the central coast will go to the polls Tuesday in a free-for-all primary to fill a vacancy created when Rep. Walter H. Capps (D) died of a heart attack Oct. 28 after 10 months in office. A cast of intriguing candidates includes his widow, Lois, a public health nurse and the only Democrat; millionaire wine-grower Brooks Firestone and Republican state Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro, a hard-line conservative who's spent the last 20 years paralyzed in a wheelchair.
In many respects, the race has been a textbook model of what voters tell pollsters they would like to see in political campaigns. The candidates have debated each other candidly in open forums and used positive television and radio commercials. Campaign managers and consultants have shown civility and competence. Local media coverage by three network affiliates, two daily newspapers and two weeklies has been extensive.
At the same time, money has been flowing into the district from outside groups hoping to influence the outcome of the first congressional contest in an election year where every seat counts. Independent issue groups have been bombarding voters with negative commercials that even some of the beneficiaries say are misleading. The bluntest commercial portrays Bordonaro, who supports term limits, as opposing them. Other ads attack Capps and Firestone, who favor abortion rights, on the issue of partial-birth abortion.
"That's the schizophrenia of modern politics," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a Southern California political analyst. "There's going to be negative advertising, no matter what the candidates do."
Candidates cannot control advertising by independent groups, but this may be one of the few campaigns where they have even tried. When U.S. Term Limits, a Washington, D.C.-based group, used radio ads to describe Bordonaro as a "career politician," even an opponent objected. Firestone denounced the ads, noting that Bordonaro is a rancher and businessman who has spent three years in the state legislature.
Bordonaro is now being pummeled by television commercials sponsored by Americans for Limited Terms, which to the sound of carnival music portrays him as a huckster. Bordonaro has repeatedly promised to vote for any term limits measure that reaches the House floor, but won't sign a voluntary pledge to serve no more than three terms.
"The pledge is a sham," said Bordonaro. "Signing such a pledge in a Congress where seniority rules shortchanges your own constituents. I want term limits for everyone, not just the representatives of the 22nd Congressional District."
If independent commercials are a guide, the election is about term limits, abortion and taxation. But many other issues arise in candidate forums. These include protection of Medicare and bilingual education, a hot-button topic throughout California and an even hotter one here.
The 22nd district, which includes some of California's most scenic coastline and picturesque wine country, was represented in Congress by Republicans for a half century until Walter Capps, a professor of religious studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, upset a conservative GOP incumbent in 1996.
This year each party has 41 percent of the 328,000 registered voters with the rest divided among independents and six minor parties. On Tuesday, all voters will receive the same ballot. If no one wins an outright majority, Lois Capps and the leading Republican will meet in a runoff March 10.
Firestone, 61, is a state assemblyman, an heir to a tire fortune and Santa Barbara County's best-known vintner. He calls himself a "passionate centrist" and has one of the most liberal voting records of any Republican legislator. He is pro-choice and pro-environment, refused to sign a GOP loyalty oath and has often cooperated with Democrats.
Firestone, who jump-started his campaign with a personal loan of $250,000, has spent $449,000, according to a report filed last week, and is expected to spend $700,000 by Election Day. But Capps, who has raised $575,000, including heavy donations from labor groups, may equal or outspend him. Bordonaro has spent $131,000.
Lois Capps has walked a fine line. She presents herself as representing the unfinished legacy of her husband, who was famed for his university classes that reconciled veterans and opponents of the Vietnam War. But she also seeks to demonstrate that she is qualified in her own right and has said repeatedly that she doesn't want to be elected on a sympathy vote.
Capps, who will be 60 today, has proved effective and informed in small groups and has an intense following among women and public health professionals. However, even her supporters acknowledge that she is sometimes uncomfortable before the camera in debates.
Her campaign has organized more than 600 volunteers in an uphill effort to win an outright majority Tuesday. "Trying to win in January is the best strategy for winning in March," campaign manager Cathy Duvall says.
Operatives for all sides agree that private polls give Capps the lead with more than 40 percent of the vote. Firestone and Bordonaro are in the mid-twenties, with Firestone holding a slight lead.
Bordonaro, 38, has strong support among conservatives, who traditionally turn out in special elections. Known as "Bordo" in the legislature, Bordonaro is no cookie-cutter conservative. He has been paralyzed for 20 years, with only slight use of his arms, as the result of an auto accident. While he has sponsored legislation to provide public access for the disabled, he never refers to his disability. In debates he has been the most relaxed of the three candidates and the most fatalistic about his chances.
"I could never hope to match either of them in money, and I'm perfectly willing to depend on people power," he said.
Firestone, despite wealth and popularity, knows he is waging a two-front war against candidates with passionate followings. "How would you like to run against the widow of an icon who has been deified by the media and a conservative paraplegic with a loyal following?" asked a leading Firestone operative.
Whatever happens Tuesday will be only the first chapter in a four-part saga. In addition to the probable March 10 runoff, Capps and at least one of the Republicans plan to run in the regular June primary and then again in the November general election.
The point was made by Capps campaign consultant Bill Carrick who, after the recent shooting of some campaign commercials, turned plaintively to cameramen who were folding up their gear.
"Don't go anywhere," Carrick said to them. "We're going to need you for the entire year."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company