California Incumbent Returns To New Turf
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday September 13, 2000
Suburbanites will seal the deal in this year's national elections. They're more moderate, independent, prosperousand now more numerous than rural or city folk. With the race close, the party that figures out how to win on the "Crabgrass Frontier" could own both the White House and Congress. First of a series.
PASADENA-As he listened to the first hymn at the Armenian Brotherhood Bible Church, where he'd come to give "testimony," Rep. Jim Rogan realized he could be in big trouble.
No, not in the way even fellow Republicans see the two-term conservative, who earned a top spot on his party's endangered list by losing touch with his district, in deed and ideology,as have other suburban GOP colleagues in the past decade. Not the sort of trouble that George W. Bush suddenly finds himself in against Al Gore, now that the vice president has managed to stoke his campaign by selling populist causes to both the well-off and working people.
It's that the hymn was in Armenian and most of the congregants-the most crucial swing voters in a swing district-spoke only that obscure tongue. Rogan would be relying on a stranger to translate. Would they understand him? Would they embrace him as Armenians haven't usually done to Republicans, except their own Gov. George Deukmejian?
But Rogan relaxed; the next hymn was in English. "He is able, more than able, to accomplish what concerns me to- day," he sang, smiling. "He is able to handle anything that comes my way..."
When an elder introduced him in both English and Armenian as "one of a few men in government who demon-strates Christian values, who wants prayer in public life, who risked his position against the president," Rogan knew he was among friends. When he saw the tears evoked by his poignant story-a high school dropout whose mother was a convicted welfare cheat and father an alcoholic; a "lost soul" who worked as a bouncer in a porno theater, then pushed himself through college and law school, went to Congress and "found Christ," all before 40-he knew that on this sum-mer day he could handle anything that came his way.
Rogan's problem still was his other testimony. The one that set him up as a poster boy for the sort of extremism that makes suburbanites queasy no matter which party is shouting from the fringes. The one that burnished the GOP's damaging image as partisan zealots, which first hurt it during the stridently conservative 1992 convention and again during the 1995 government shutdown. Eighteen months ago, the House GOP decided to impeach Bill Clinton. Rogan served as a key prosecutor at the president's Senate trial.
Election 2000 is the first big test of whether Republicans so squandered their political capital with a majority of Americans that they will be forced to forfeit the rest of the majority they seized in the 1994 Gingrich Revolution. They are on the brink. With so many incumbents vulnerable or GOP seats vacant, the odds are that the party is heading over it. And if Bush fails to turn around his own campaign, here as well as in other swing-state suburbs-places like those out-side Philadelphia, Orlando, St. Louis- Republicans will be a minority party again.
Rogan, his district and much of suburban California offer a look at how the GOP and its candidates remain out of sync in some crucial districts -or how the districts are out of sync with them.
Clinton was and is one of the most popular politicians in the region northeast of Los Angeles. And Rogan's role en-raged many independents as well as partisans in these increasingly Democratic communities-especially wealthy and powerful leaders in the burgeoning entertainment business. They wanted revenge. And to get it, Democrats across the country have been pouring money into the race, nearly as much as Republicans and Clinton-haters.
But the race will be the costliest House contest ever, already surpassing the $ 8 million record, because of more than a desire for partisan payback. The Democrats need to net six seats to retake Congress. With a superb challenger in state Sen. Adam Schiff, who couldn't have won office here a decade ago before the GOP made it easier, they have a great shot at Rogan.
Rogan's higher profile on impeachment, which has also helped him raise $ 5 million so far, is only one reason. It is more a symptom than a cause of Republican problems, one that was already evident in 1996 when I traveled to other suburban battlegrounds. It's why Democrats, who were an afterthought in this state only a few years ago, all but own it. It's also why Gore should easily take the nation's biggest cache of electoral votes and his party pick up four congres-sional seats in it.
Like many Republicans, Rogan's vulnerability comes more from not adapting fast enough to changing political and social trends. It comes from not having a feel for what his voters, particularly newcomers, want (more money for educa-tion and conservation and health care) and don't want (guns and complete corporate control of health care decisions). It also comes from misunderstanding suburbanites, especially baby boomers, who are neither antitax nor antigovernment, as many Republicans believe, but do insist on getting their money's worth in the services they want for their parents and children.
Like many suburbs, Rogan's district has become more ethnically and racially diverse-with more Hispanics, Asians and blacks, who are more traditional Democratic voters. Only a decade ago, it was dominated by conservative white Republicans. Democrats now outnumber Republicans by seven points and hold all state legislative seats in the district.
Now, whites are barely half the population. Increasingly, instead of conservative aerospace engineers who left with Lockheed's defense contracts, they are moderate or liberal set designers or computer graphics technicians working in hundreds of mushrooming multimedia firms.
But demographics are only part of the problem. These are men and women who tend to support gay and abortion rights, where Rogan is ardently against them. Now the "little old lady from Pasadena" the Beach Boys sang about is gone, Granny, gone. Instead, there is Gus Gomez and Rafi Manoukian, the first Democrats on the city council in Ro-gan's home of Glendale. Instead, at a local Infiniti dealer, the sign in Korean is as big as the one in English. But for a politician who advocates cracking down on immigrants, that is a bad sign. He also has managed to alienate black voters not only with his opposition to affirmative action but with remarks that some considered intemperate. So much for broadening his base.
His aggressive opposition to gun control has made him an honoree of the National Rifle Association, but in a dis-trict near where a gunman shot up a synagogue last year, he is out of step. In neighborhoods where a war breaks out over the removal of ivy at a shopping mall, his record of voting to weaken environmental protections is easily exploit-able. And if all politics is local, then his vote for the Private Property Rights Act-a vote condemned by local civic groups-could hurt him with residents fighting several huge projects.
And while he found friends at the conservative Armenian Church, the district's largest Armenian group has en-dorsed his opponent. These ethnic Reagan Democrats have come back home.
If Rogan survives, credit his charisma and reputation for rectitude. He is talking the George W.-style "compassion-ate conservative" talk and asking moderates who disagree with his positions to give him credit for acting out of princi-ple. But in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, as well as in suburbs around the country, the voters may be too far from where he stands to even hear.