Calif. has a good chance of making feminist history ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 29, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- California voters can write a bold page in the history of feminism in Tuesday's Democratic primaries by nominating two women to run simultaneously for two separate U.S. Senate seats in November. The odds are at least 50-50 it will happen.

Former Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco is a heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination over state Controller Gray Davis for the two-year term left when Republican Pete Wilson resigned to assume California's governorship in 1990. The winner is expected to face Wilson's appointed successor, ++ Sen. John Seymour, in the fall.

But the writing of this bit of feminist history will depend on whether Rep. Barbara Boxer, weighed down with a record of 143 overdrafts in the House bank scandal, can beat two strong male candidates for the full six-year seat to be vacated by the retirement of Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston. The primary winner will run against the survivor of the GOP primary between Rep. Tom Campbell and television commentator Bruce Herschensohn in a race too close to call.

With the Los Angeles riots dominating the news here, the two Senate primary races have drawn only modest press attention, which may have been helpful to Boxer in ducking the bounced-check problem that has already victimized other offenders.

But the issue has gained new prominence in late television ads run by one of Boxer's foes, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, ahead in most polls but seriously challenged by Boxer and the third candidate, Rep. Mel Levine. The question is whether the bounced checks will sink Boxer, or the veteran McCarthy for raising the issue in a year when voters are clearly disenchanted with negative politics -- or both.

At a meeting of Communications Workers of America Local 9586 the other day, Jim Gordon, a CWA regional director, in introducing Boxer reminded his associates that the union had endorsed McCarthy as well as Boxer. But then he told them that McCarthy "really went way down in my book with all the crap he's been doing," and he intended to tell him so.

Gordon was referring to two new McCarthy television ads. One shows a head shot of Boxer ricocheting off the sides of the screen like a billiard ball as the narrator recounts her check-bouncing. Another charges Boxer and Levine with voting for the last congressional pay raise, as well as accusing Levine of using "improper influence" as a state legislator to get his wife a state job.

The late entry of negative advertising by McCarthy suggests strongly that his strategists see his early lead in the polls slipping fast. Roy Behr, McCarthy's manager, says the contest HTC has developed into "a two-way race" between his candidate and Boxer, although late polls indicate that Levine, who is the biggest buyer of television time of the three, is running a close third. The latest Los Angeles Times poll out May 22 had it McCarthy 28 percent, Boxer 24 percent and Levine 22 percent, and other polls are similar.

Until the McCarthy ad, the closest any commercial had come to reminding voters of Boxer's membership in the bounced-check brigade was a Levine ad that boasted that "this congressman wrote no bad checks." Levine also caused a stir with a post-riot ad condemning "mob rule" that was read by some old liberal friends as a distinctly unliberal law-and-order pitch.

Kapolczynski says there is no evidence yet that the bounced checks have hurt Boxer. Some here suggest that a bigger problem may be voters' disinclination to vote two women into the Senate at once, what with Feinstein considered a near-certain winner in her race and a likely victor in the fall.

But so far this year, Democratic women candidates for the Senate have pulled upsets in Illinois and Pennsylvania, using the issue of revulsion against the male-dominated Senate's performance in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. If California's women want to make feminist history in November, though, they have the chance with the Feinstein-Boxer tandem. Pollsters say two-thirds of the undecided vote in the McCarthy-Boxer-Levine race are women, so a late-blooming gender gap for Boxer could be decisive.

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