When someone makes an issue of Assemblyman Tom Hayden's past, it is usually a Republican. There is the assemblyman who has pledged to have him ousted from the Legislature as a traitor. Or the state senator who raises funds by portraying Hayden as an unrepentant Vietnam-era radical. Or the ex-Marine who has charged that Hayden is bent on destroying the American way of life.
Then there is J. Alex Cota, Democrat, a small man with a clip-on tie who could teach all three Republicans a thing or two about Hayden-bashing. Call him a man with a mission. That's how Cota explains his reasons for spending $64,000, apparently his own money, on a futile 1984 campaign against Hayden.
Call him a man who refuses to quit. That's how the 58-year-old Cota defends his decision to challenge Hayden (D-Santa Monica) once again June 3 in the 44th Assembly District primary, even if it means spending another $64,000.
Call him confrontational. That's the reputation he has earned for recruiting outraged Indochinese boat people to heckle Hayden at public appearances, and for his frequent attempts to force Hayden into a debate.
Just don't call him a Republican sympathizer. He admits that right-wing groups have helped him distribute campaign literature. But J. Alex Cota, lifelong Democrat, says "phooey" to accusations that he is financially backed by such noted GOP Hayden-bashers as Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora), Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) and Vietnam veteran Mickey Conroy.
"I consider myself a liberal," Cota said firmly. "I am running because someone has to stand up for real Democratic principles."
Cota contends that Hayden does not represent true Democratic principles, that he is not even a true liberal when it comes down to it. He has accused the assemblyman of encouraging the Communist takeover in Vietnam through his 1960s anti-war activities. By association he has blamed Hayden for Communist incursions elsewhere, including Afghanistan. He has also said that Hayden is weak on human rights and a failure as the 44th District representative.
Hayden called Cota's charges "blatantly false" and charged that Cota is a "front" for right-wing extremists who have attacked him since his election.
"I don't know exactly who he is," Hayden said. "But he's not a normal person or a normal candidate. . . . He's a very mysterious fellow."
Privately, some people close to Hayden's organization have said that they consider Cota a fanatic. Cota contends that Hayden aides are using KGB tactics to harass him and discredit his campaign. He bristles at the notion that there is anything odd or suspicious about his crusade against Hayden.
"I don't hate anybody," Cota said. "I don't go for hatred. Hatred is not why I'm fighting. I have very concrete reasons for opposing Tom Hayden."
Cota's reasons mostly have to do with Hayden's past as the founder of Students for a Democratic Society, a front-line war protester who visited North Vietnam, and a member of the so-called "Chicago Seven," the radical group charged with disrupting the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
But he also has a political platform. Cota said he wants the state
to spend more money on juvenile correctional facilities. He supports campaign finance reform and has called for more humane treatment of the homeless. Cota also supports legislation to improve water quality in Santa Monica Bay. At the same time, he dismisses Hayden's considerable efforts to protect the bay.
Cota professes to have no interests other than politics and will say little about his private life, other than that he is single. He is equally tight-lipped about finances. When pressed, he says that he has paid for his campaigns with money earned from his business, J. Alex Cota Real Estate.
The Cota campaign is directed from Cota's house in Rancho Park, a modest white stucco place with a brown Cadillac Seville parked in the driveway. It is there, under a red tile roof, that he sits at a typewriter and produces an unending string of pointed and sometimes gruesomely illustrated position papers.
One flyer, which Cota distributed at a dinner honoring Hayden's contributions to the Orthodox Jewish community, showed a picture of a boy, supposedly from Afghanistan, who had lost his hands in a Communist bombing raid. The flyer accused Hayden of being soft on Communism and was signed, "Alex Cota, your fellow American."
His latest missive criticizes those who oppose the confirmation of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, whom he supports.
"Misguided persons are seizing upon the unfair and inaccurate accusations for political gain," Cota charged. "This damages the body politic!"