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Fiedler, Never One for Conciliation, Has Done Battle Before

January 25, 1986|KAREN TUMULTY and KEVIN RODERICK | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As a little girl in Santa Monica, Roberta Frances Horowitz loved tagging along with her father, a former middleweight boxing champion, to watch the fights.

No longer content to remain at ringside, the woman now known as Bobbi Fiedler has not been reluctant to push her way into the most brutal and ugly of scuffles: first, as a housewife making her political name on the emotion-laden school busing issue, and now, as a congresswoman from Northridge who shows little regard for the politics of compromise and conciliation.

"She makes no real effort to get along," says one California Democratic congressman, who asked not to be identified.

But another, who almost never finds himself on the same side as Fiedler, adds that being part of the congressional club has never been her goal. "She has talent as a political outsider," more intent upon getting her message across to her constituents, he says. "That's more important to her than whether she is beloved by her colleagues."

Can Be Irritating

Her tenacity and bluntness regularly irritate even fellow Republicans. Nonetheless, she has become a strong political force in less than a decade by coupling these qualities with an ability to sniff out political causes that arouse voter passion.

Achieving school integration through court-ordered busing was such an issue. When 13 parents of students at an Encino elementary school in 1976 formed a group they called Bustop to oppose mandatory busing, Fiedler--whose only experience outside her home had been working in her husband's pharmacy--became the anti-busing organization's most vocal member.

Tapping a strong current of dissatisfaction with busing, her appearances at rallies in public parks and local schools brought enough recognition for her to defeat pro-busing Los Angeles Board of Education incumbent Robert F. Docter in 1977. Meanwhile, her anti-busing activities continued, with the aid of two contacts who would be crucial to guiding her political career: Paul Clarke, a former radio newsman, and Arnold Steinberg, a young conservative political strategist.

Formed a Majority

She also helped elect other anti-busing candidates to the board, and in 1980 they formed a board majority that dismantled the city's 2 1/2-year-old limited busing plan.

As her political stature grew, her 18-year marriage deteriorated. She and her husband filed for divorce in 1977. "We were just moving in different directions," she once told The Times.

Ready to go beyond local politics, she challenged 20-year incumbent Democratic Rep. James C. Corman in 1980. In a campaign run by Steinberg and Clarke, she defeated Corman by a hair-thin margin of 752 votes.

Clarke, the man with whom she is now under indictment, went to Washington with her as her executive assistant, a job for which she paid him a government salary of $5,000 a month, according to the latest public filing. The two are open about their romantic involvement, and he is her top political adviser, constant companion and confidant.

Considered a Team Effort

"They're a team," said one California congressman. "They got elected to Congress that way, and it's been that way ever since."

Some of her critics in Congress claim that she is unable to grasp the substance of the complicated issues with which she must deal on the House Budget Committee, and they note that she has shown no aptitude for the daily business of shepherding legislation. But those who work most closely with her assert that her political skills should not be doubted.

"I have a great deal of respect for her political sense," said one Democrat. "She's underestimated as somebody who just sort of walked out and got onto a political issue that catapulted her into public office."

California Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), one of the few Republicans who would comment on Fiedler just after her indictment for bribery, said: "She's done her job, and she's done it well. . . . I thought she represented her district well."

Won by Large Majority

Certainly, by her second and third congressional elections, she had cemented her incumbency with an overwhelming 72% of the vote.

Her latest cause--one that has set her against almost the entire California congressional delegation, Democrat and Republican alike--is her vocal opposition to Los Angeles' proposed multibillion-dollar Metro Rail subway system.

Calling it a "turkey" that would "rob some of the poorest in my community," she has squared off against the downtown establishment. But as one congressman noted: "That was not a particularly attainable political base anyway" for the maverick congresswoman. And several said that such opposition probably has enhanced Fiedler's political stature by giving her a reputation as a dogged fighter against government waste.

"She's been pointing out some real serious concerns that people should have paid attention to," conceded one congressman, who nonetheless supports the project.

Matter of Instinct, Timing

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