In Calif. candidates' terms, it's an 'old pol' or 'disaster'


OAKLAND, Calif. -- The other morning, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein stood outside a home only now being rebuilt after the devastation of the bay area's 1991 firestorms. A neighborhood resident, Margey Gibson Haskell, shook her hand and told her: "If this is a special interest, I'm awfully glad to be one."

The woman's remark came in response to Mrs. Feinstein's recounting to a small group of firestorm victims how she had pushed through legislation in 1993 that enabled them to overcome bureaucratic roadblocks. Her bill extended for two years the time for them to qualify for natural disaster tax breaks.

The senator's Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 senatorial election, Rep. Michael Huffington, has hammered at her as a "career politician" whose driving force is a desire to serve "special interests" in return for campaign contributions to keep herself in office.

This particular Feinstein appearance was obviously arranged as a prop from which to take credit for a senatorial action, and the neighbors were all too willing to be part of it. However, it fit nicely into Mr. Huffington's description of Mrs. Feinstein as an old pol who uses government to bring home the bacon.

In other years and against another opponent, that description might be an unvarnished advantage. But voters are angry at Congress in general, and have a generally low impression of its members as self-serving hacks, and Mr. Huffington is striving mightily to ride those attitudes right into the Senate.

Although he himself is a member of Congress -- a one-term House member from Santa Barbara -- Mr. Huffington is blandly running as a Washington outsider against a "career politician." He repeatedly mentions Mrs. Feinstein's service as a former mayor and supervisor in San Francisco and her failed run for governor before being elected in 1992 to serve out the last two years of the Senate term vacated by Republican Pete Wilson when he was elected governor.

Mr. Huffington, perhaps inadvertently, has bolstered his own claim of being an outsider by failing to build any sort of record of achievement in his two years in the House. Mrs. Feinstein tries her best to make his lack of a legislative record an issue and a contrast to her own aggressive legislative style. But the more she tries, the more he characterizes her, in heavy television advertising, as a tool of "the special interests."

Still, Mrs. Feinstein's chances of re-election in a political season in which incumbents, and especially Democratic incumbents, are bad odor with the voters rest in her ability to remind Californians what she has done for them as a longtime political operator -- and to slam Mr. Huffington as a "do-nothing" political dilettante.

Among her own activist Democratic base, Mrs. Feinstein is widely applauded for bringing home the bacon -- not only for the firestorm victims but for Californians wanting more cops on the streets and assault weapons off them, and wanting their desert lands protected.

Addressing a lunch of Alameda County Democrats, she told them how she had helped beat a Republican filibuster against the California desert protection bill and before that how she had joined in passing the crime bill while bucking "the ultimate old boys' network" in the Senate, where new members are expected "to be seen and not heard."

Of the 100,000 additional police to be provided nationally under the bill, she was ready to report, California will get 10,200, and of those, Oakland will get between 130 and 144, she said. Mr. Huffington, she noted, voted against the crime bill.

Of her legislative record, she said, "I do not consider that being a career politician. I consider it service to my community." Noting that Mr. Huffington is a latecomer to the state from Texas who she said pledged to serve six years in the House and is now running for the Senate after only two, she asked: "Do any of you believe California will benefit if California's senators do nothing? Do you want a senator who is 100 percent for California or someone who, frankly, is 100 percent for himself?"

The state, she said, "had earthquakes, firestorms and other natural disturbances," but electing Mr. Huffington to the Senate would be "worse than any natural disaster."

For all her touting of her own record, it is clear that Mrs. Feinstein realizes that her best chance of re-election may be voters' fears that the alternative may be sending another obstructionist -- or an empty suit -- to the Senate in her place.

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