Mud slung with abandon in California's primaries



LOS ANGELES -- The Ross Perot phenomenon is supposed to convey the message that the voters are fed up with politics as usual, including its negative and destructive tone. But that message obviously is not being taken to heart in the primaries for California's two U.S. Senate seats.

The most outrageous commercial yet is one being run by state controller Gray Davis against former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein in their contest for the Democratic nomination to fill the two years remaining in the term that Pete Wilson vacated when he became governor.

The ad features pictures of Feinstein and jailed hotel magnate Leona Helmsley and compares Helmsley's conviction for income tax evasion with alleged finance violations in Feinstein's 1990 gubernatorial contest against Wilson. The charges are being investigated by the state's fair campaign practices commission and a lawsuit has been filed against Feinstein, who dismisses the charges as inadvertent, technical errors.

The ad's narrator says: "Leona Helmsley and Dianne Feinstein? Hotel Queen Helmsley misreported one million dollars to the IRS. Feinstein misreported 8 million dollars to the Fair Political Practices Commission. Helmsley blames her servants for the felony. Feinstein blames her staff for the lawsuit. Helmsley is in jail. Feinstein wants to be a senator? Truth -- for a change." As the narrator finishes, prison bars slam down over Helmsley's photo and "Senate columns" collapse around Feinstein.

The ad is the work of the Berman-D'Agostino political consultant firm, known locally -- small wonder -- as BAD. Its appearance, smacking of desperation in the final days before Tuesday's vote, underscores polls putting Davis far behind Feinstein.

In the other Democratic primary, front-running Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, obviously hearing the footsteps of opponents Reps. Barbara Boxer and Mel Levine, has started running ads attacking both for taking congressional pay raises and Boxer for having written 143 bad checks in the House bank scandal.

Levine, for his part, has been airing ads blaming the L.A. riots on "a failure of political leadership" although his own party runs the city and Congress, and declaring that "a democratic society can't tolerate mob rule" -- a line Boxer aides suggest is a declared liberal's raw law-and-order appeal to conservatives.

In the Republican primary for the two-year seat, Rep. Tom Campbell is running an ad that says flatly that his opponent, television commentator Bruce Herschensohn, "is lying" about where he stands. The ad cites a Herschensohn paper in charging he wants to kill Social Security, the home mortgage tax deduction, AIDS research, the Department of Education and a woman's right to choose an abortion.

A bit more subtle is a television commercial being run by opponents of a Los Angeles charter amendment that would remove the police chief from civil service protection, limit the occupant to two five-year terms and give the City Council tighter oversight of his performance.

The ad shows a photo of the soon-to-depart incumbent, the beleaguered Daryl Gates, who is white, and then one of his replacement, former Philadelphia Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who is black, as the narrator notes that the change was made without the voters having any say about it. The amendment has been winning by 3-to-1 in the polls, along with expressed deep dissatisfaction with Gates' performance during the L.A. riots.

Where's Arlen Specter When You Need Him?

Women's groups are keeping a sharp eye on Boxer's Senate bid for further signs of the political potency of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill issue as a motivator of women to protest the Senate hearings on Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation. It has already been shown to be a critical factor in the Democratic nominations of women for Senate seats in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

A major difference is present in Boxer's race, however. She has ** no specific target to rail against on the issue. Carol Moseley Braun, the winner in Illinois, upset Sen. Alan Dixon, who voted for Thomas' confirmation, and Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania campaigned against Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who voted likewise. Neither of the two other Democrats nor the two Republicans seeking the same Senate seat were involved in the Thomas vote. Which leads Boxer's campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, to comment: "I wish we were running against an Arlen Specter."

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