Boxer Finds a Family Tie That Binds
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 1998; Page A10
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 26The two candidates vying for a California Senate seat met for their first debate today and from the moment it began, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) was pressed by her opponent to condemn President Clinton's affair with a former White House intern.
After months of cautious comments on the subject, state Treasurer Matt Fong (R) called Clinton's behavior "disgusting," and suggested that Boxer was a hypocrite because she forcefully attacked then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) over allegations that they were sexual harassers.
"Barbara, your silence on this is deafening," Fong said. He suggested the issue was not simply an extramarital affair in the White House, but a powerful boss hitting on a young aide. "When it comes to Democrats," Fong said, "you have a different set of standards."
Boxer, whose daughter married Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, Tony Rodham, repeated her earlier judgment that "the president was wrong." But she did not go as far as her fellow Californian, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), who reacted to the recent revelations by the president "with a deep sense of sadness in that my trust in his credibility has been badly shattered."
Instead, Boxer countered that she believed the voters in the largest state in the nation wanted "to move on" to the pressing problems of the day, such as improving the state's lackluster public schools, protecting the coast from further oil drilling and crafting "a patients' bill of rights" to tighten HMO regulations.
The one-hour encounter, aired locally in Los Angeles at noon today (following a "Jerry Springer" episode on intrafamily sex) was the first of two scheduled debates between Boxer and Fong. They are in a statistical dead heat, according to the most recent polls, including a Field Institute survey released today giving them each 43 percent of the vote.
The race is closely watched, as Boxer is considered potentially vulnerable and Republicans are attempting to capture enough seats to give them a filibuster-proof Senate majority of 60.
The debate offered an early look at how the ongoing investigation of Clinton may rub off on other races around the nation. Boxer believes that while journalists and politicians are seemingly obsessed with Clinton's troubles, the voters themselves are turned off and will rally to a candidate who keeps her distance from the scandal and focuses on solving problems.
But Boxer was clearly put on the defensive today, repeatedly queried by the panelists about the scandal. At one point she was asked if she would fire a top aide who was caught having sex with an intern in her Senate chambers.
For his part, Fong seemed to be stressing not the president's behavior, but issues of fairness. He sought to tap into possible voter distaste not only with the president but his defenders particularly feminists who have largely failed to condemn Clinton because he has supported their positions.
On other matters, Boxer highlighted what she said were the differences between herself and Fong, asserting that she was the candidate who would protect abortion rights, the environment and children. She also pointed out her role in bringing $11 billion in disaster relief to the state following floods and earthquakes, getting another 9,000 police officers on California streets and pushing gun control measures such as mandatory safety locks.
One of the strategies of her campaign is to characterize Fong as a member of the right wing of the GOP, saying today, "I think his views will take us back, back to the old days."
Fong, who is often characterized as a somewhat stiff campaigner and who stumbled today over some of his lines, responded with some confessional politics of his own.
On the issue of abortion, Fong said that as an adopted child himself, he opposed abortion, but said he would protect a woman's right to the procedure during the first trimester of her pregnancy though he opposes government support of abortions and seeks parental consent for minors.
Asked about measures such as the one approved recently in San Francisco to ensure civil rights and other protections of gay unions, Fong again made a confession, saying that while he believes the traditional family is "the core" of American life, "one of my own members of our family is gay."
In their closing remarks, both candidates offered details of their own lives, in empathetic appeals to California's racial and ethnic diversity. Boxer related how she is a first-generation American on her mother's side and how her father was the only one of nine children born in the United States.
Fong said that as a Chinese American, he understood discrimination, relating that his grandfather came to this country to be a gold miner, but was relegated to a job as a day laborer, "a coolie." He said his own parents were denied housing because of their Chinese ancestry.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company