Democrats will have trouble regaining even one house

August 13, 1998|By George F. Will

SAN DIEGO -- Rep. Brian Bilbray is late for breakfast because of a family problem not uncommon on this portion of the country's left coast. His 13-year-old son went surfing without telling his mother.

Father was understanding. He is as at home in a wet suit as he is in worsted. He is a member of -- he is a third of -- the congressional surfing caucus.

If Democrats are going to gain the 11 seats needed to take back control of the House of Representatives, Mr. Bilbray's district should be a battleground. In 1994, the year of Republican wine and roses, he barely won it, 49 percent to 46 percent.

He beat a Democratic incumbent, Lynn Schenk, who, when voting for President Clinton's 1993 tax increase, understandably but imprudently turned off her office fax machine to the annoyance of constituents who were hectoring her. In 1996, she waited so long before deciding against a rematch, Democrats were left with a candidate who got only 42 percent.

The district runs along the coast from the Mexican border north almost to the Del Mar racetrack ("Where the surf meets the turf," crooned a part-owner, Bing Crosby). The district bears no resemblance to its caricature as a conservative enclave of active and retired Navy personnel. It is a gateway to Mexico and home to a growing high-tech industrial base. In 1992, Mr. Clinton beat George Bush here, 43-31, with independent Ross Perot getting 25 percent. In 1996, Mr. Clinton, Bob Dole and Mr. Perot were 49, 40, 7.

Long-time pol

At age 25 Mr. Bilbray was a city councilman in the town of Imperial Beach, mayor at 27. This year his opponent, Christine Kehoe ("very likable," says Mr. Bilbray), is a term-limited San Diego councilwoman looking for a new office. Her lesbianism is among her attributes that recommended her to the Democratic Party because it enables her to tap the considerable fund-raising resources of the national gay and lesbian political network. Adding EMILY's List and the rest of the women's money sources, she is the nation's best-funded challenger to an incumbent.

She says the sort of things Democrats say when running in closely divided constituencies. She is for good schools, small businesses and large police forces. He is saying . . . well, he is sort of a free spirit.

Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt have already been here for Ms. Kehoe.

When Newt Gingrich spoke at a Bilbray fund-raiser, he delicately allowed as how Mr. Bilbray is "even more eclectic than I am. . . . There are times you see him pop up on the floor and you say, 'Uh oh, I wonder what this one will be.' "

Before Mr. Gingrich delivered that testimonial, Mr. Bilbray delivered introductory remarks that made sport of Mr. Gingrich's home state ("Who'd have ever thought we'd live to see Georgia have a speaker"), the Navy ("My father always said communism was going to fail because you can't run a whole country the way the Navy is run") and budget follies ("To me, a $900 toilet seat may not be all that bad. It depends on what you're going to do with it").

He is a live wire, but not a loose cannon. He is moderate on most issues, and is pro-choice, leaving Ms. Kehoe to try to make much of his opposition to funding abortions in military hospitals. But even pro-choice constituents usually oppose public funding of abortions. Ms. Kehoe may be running one election cycle too late. In 1996, her attempt to characterize him as a lock-step Gingrich soldier might have resonated. Mr. Bilbray, a seasoned politician, knows how to read his mail -- more precisely, how to read the NTC fact that the volume of his congressional mail is way down.

Not even the public's supposed seething about HMOs mars the general contentment. He says his district has an unusually high amount of managed care, but that his database reveals that those who write angrily about managed care are mostly those who write about most liberal issues, hoping to force a crisis that will justify government controls. The paradigms, he says, are campaigns to stop the building of rental units to produce scarcities that are cited to justify rent controls.

'The wet suit'

Ms. Kehoe is stressing her commitment to conservation of the coastline, but her attacks on his supposedly unsatisfactory stewardship are somewhat blunted by what she refers to as "the wet suit." He wears it in some of his campaign ads.

Experienced, well-financed and running in a competitive district against an incumbent whose nickname is not "Landslide," Ms. Kehoe still is not favored, which is not a happy harbinger for Democrats hoping to control even one house of the next Congress.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/13/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.