After a summer lull, the name-calling began in earnest this week in Democratic Assemblyman Richard Robinson's campaign to unseat conservative Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).
The first shot, however, was fired neither by Dornan nor Robinson but by Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. At a press conference Monday in Santa Ana, called to announce that the Robinson-Dornan race in the 38th Congressional District is one of 35 top-priority congressional races nationally that the committee intends to finance, Coelho opened the attack.
He claimed that Dornan "had a chance to serve his country in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, but decided not to and ran away."
Dornan, angrily responding by telephone from his Richmond, Va., home, called Coelho's charges "tacky." Dornan said he joined the Air Force as a teen-ager in 1952, dropping out of his college Reserve Officers' Training Corps class to do so.
"I got my wings a year and a half ahead of the college class," he said. "That's hardly avoiding going to serve."
He said he served on active duty until 1958 and then served 18 years in the reserves. He never flew in combat while in the service. After he left active duty, Dornan said he accompanied eight combat missions in Vietnam as a newsman for RKO television.
Dornan added: "I flew hot missions; they were firing away with their hot guns, and I was firing away with my Nikons."
Earlier, Dornan's chief of staff, Brian O'Leary Bennett, had called Coelho's charges "made up" and said of Coelho: "I think somebody who got a 4-F (deferment) because of epilepsy should be very careful about impugning another man's record of service to his country when he didn't have any at all."
Dornan later disavowed some aspects of Bennett's attack, saying: "Brian shouldn't have mentioned why he got the 4-F."
Responding to Bennett, Coelho said he did have epilepsy and had suffered greatly from his disability by being barred from military service, from obtaining a driver's license and from obtaining life insurance.
Dornan Had 'Lied'
But he argued that Dornan had "lied" by reporting to a political almanac that he had served in Vietnam when he hadn't. "He's a hawk out there advocating that we engage young men in combat, and he won't do it," Coelho said.
Bennett and Dornan conceded that there have been "some misprints" in condensed biographies of Dornan that showed he had served in Southeast Asia, but they called those a publisher's error.
Dornan's military background became an issue in March, 1985, when he called Rep. Thomas J. Downey "a draft-dodging wimp" and scuffled with the New York Democrat on the House floor. After that incident, some House Democrats circulated a copy of the R. R. Bowker Co.'s. "Who's Who in American Politics 1983-84" which reported, erroneously, that Dornan had served in the Air Force "in Southeast Asia."
Mark Johnson, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, said politicians are invited to submit their own biographical material to the political "Who's Who."
Dornan said a full, two-page official biography had been submitted to "Who's Who," but the publishers "synthesized it to seven lines. One of them said I served in Southeast Asia as a correspondent and made eight trips. They dropped the eight trips and they dropped the correspondent."
Bennett called the question of Dornan's combat service one of many "lies that the Democrats helped perpetuate." The mistake in the political annual had long since been corrected, Bennett said, adding: "It's such cheap politics to be accused of not serving your country when he has served his country. This from a liberal's liberal. Some people go over the line."
Robinson served as a noncommissioned officer in the Marine Corps from July, 1961, to August, 1966, his campaign staff said. Robinson was among the first 500 Marines sent to fortify troops in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the missile crisis and also served in Vietnam, where he was a radar intercept technician. He was decorated for service under fire during an extended tour of duty in Vietnam, a campaign aide said.
The announcement that Robinson's race is a Congressional Campaign Committee target means that he is eligible to receive up to $50,000 from Coelho's committee.
The bulk of Dornan's congressional district is in Orange County, but it also includes part of Cerritos.