Mel Levine, the Democratic congressman long associated with West Los Angeles liberal politics, ventured into the South Bay one recent evening for a town hall meeting with the more conservative constituents he picked up in the last two reapportionments.
It was the first of a series of meetings that Levine plans in an effort to build rapport with voters in the southern portion of his Pacific Palisades-to-north Torrance 27th Congressional District, where about half of his 550,000 constituents now live.
Probably few, if any, minds were changed in the lengthy but often lively exchange of views on the great issues of the day at Redondo Beach's Perry Park Community Hall. But having met in person what one speaker called the "brilliant and charismatic" lawmaker from Santa Monica and given him a piece of their minds, even Levine's critics appeared to mellow under his relentlessly gracious and sympathetic responses to their complaints.
What seemed to disarm many of the 41-year-old lawmaker's critics in the audience of about 200 was his cheerful willingness to agree with them--or at least with some part of their arguments. Complimenting his opponents on expressing their views with such articulation and cogency didn't hurt either.
After staking out a strong position in opposition to further U.S. aid to guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista government, Levine readily agreed with several speakers who found fault with the Marxist-led regime. "I don't like the Sandinistas, either," he said.
After sternly denouncing "vicious, nasty counterattacks" against his pending bill to prohibit Americans from sending private donations to the guerrillas, or contras , he allowed that reasonable men could disagree on the issue and, certainly, if Congress detected a "groundswell of support" for the private funding, his proposal would never be adopted.
Speakers who inveighed against excessive taxation and "all those cotton-picking laws you're passing to subjugate us" found the congressman nodding in sympathy with their anger. A young man linked the federal deficit with the free-spending habits of liberals ("I've looked into your record on that," he told Levine) and the congressman agreed that there's "plenty of blame to go around."
He accepted the reproach of aerospace workers for opposing the MX missile ("I've had to face some tough decisions"), but pointed out his support for the B-1 ("I'm very close to Rockwell . . . I have the highest regard for the military").
He laughed as loudly as anyone when another speaker, upset over Levine-sponsored legislation that would require defense contractors to provide a warranty on their products, declared that Levine should have to guarantee good results from laws he helped pass.
And so it went for more than 3 1/2 hours, until about midnight, when the last of dozens of speakers had had their chance to question the congressman and express their views.
"You have to admire the way he handles himself," said one woman at the door, who indicated that she had voted against Levine in his bid for a second term in 1984. "He is mighty quick on his feet."
Did she feel a little better about his representing her in Congress? After a moment's hesitation, she nodded thoughtfully. Did she maybe even like him a little bit? "Well," she laughed, "let's wait and see."