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Beilenson Facing Test From His Own Party : Unorthodox Congressman, Used to Challenges, Encounters One on Left

April 03, 1988|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

During his 12 years in Congress and 26 in public office, Anthony C. Beilenson has attracted serious election opponents as routinely as most incumbents accumulate special-interest campaign contributions.

In fact, one reason Beilenson may appear vulnerable to opponents is that he is among only 11 House members who do not accept money from single-interest political action committees--a practice he says corrupts the legislative process--and he refuses to raise large sums to deter challengers. Another is that he will take unpopular positions--potentially antagonizing such potent groups as veterans, the elderly and motorists--and even write newspaper articles touting these stands.

"Sometimes I wonder about myself, myself," Beilenson said recently.

Thus, the Tarzana Democrat is accustomed to fending off well-financed GOP opponents in his affluent, moderately Democratic 23rd District, which extends from the Westside to the West San Fernando Valley.

This year, however, his most serious test appears to be a primary opponent from the left, Val Marmillion, a liberal West Hollywood businessman and former congressional aide who is active in the Westside arts and environmental communities.

'People Deserve Better'

"It is time to stop accepting mediocrity from our political leaders," Marmillion tells voters. "Our job here is to convince people they deserve better."

Marmillion, 37, is seeking to become the first openly homosexual candidate to be elected to Congress as a freshman. Two members, Reps. Barney Frank and Gerry E. Studds, both Massachusetts Democrats, came out of the closet after they were in office.

"You're always concerned," Beilenson, 55, says of the challenge. "Especially if a person has the potential to raise a decent amount of money, which he seems to be able to do."

Marmillion, who has hired five paid staffers, said last week he has garnered more than $30,000 toward an expected campaign treasury of $200,000 to $250,000. Beilenson has about $25,000 on hand and says he will raise only what he needs to respond to Marmillion.

Despite his low-budget campaigns, Beilenson is a proven vote-getter. The professorial-sounding, Harvard-educated attorney has represented at least part of the district as a state and federal lawmaker since John F. Kennedy was in the White House and has lost only one election--when he sought the Democratic nomination for the U. S. Senate in 1968. He trounced Republican attorney George Woolverton in 1986 by a 2-1 margin even though he was outspent.

'Unusually Independent Voice'

"We will continue to highlight the fact he is an unusually independent voice in Congress," said Craig Miller, Beilenson's campaign consultant. "He refuses to give political action committees and special interests a foothold in his district. That's one of the reasons he wins overwhelmingly."

Incumbency is another. A record 98% of all congressional incumbents won reelection in 1986, most overwhelmingly. Only two incumbent members of Congress have lost primaries in California in the past decade, and both were discredited by scandals.

The sole Republican on the 23rd District ballot is financial consultant Jim Salomon, 32, of Beverly Hills, whose fall campaign is not expected to be as well-funded or visible as Woolverton's was.

The district's 297,650 registered voters are 53% Democratic and 37% Republican; the other 10% are independent or affiliated with minor parties.

Marmillion, whose soft Southern drawl reflects his Louisiana heritage, faces prodigious obstacles. A relative unknown, he must forge an identity among 157,918 registered Democrats in a sprawling district that stretches from West Hollywood to Malibu to Canoga Park.

He echoes the liberal Beilenson on many issues, opposing both military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, and supporting a woman's right to an abortion.

'Issue Is Leadership'

But Marmillion maintains that Beilenson's voice, however independent, is barely heard--from Beverly Hills to Woodland Hills to Washington.

"The big umbrella issue in this campaign is leadership," Marmillion said during an interview in his Westwood campaign headquarters. "What have we lost because of a lack of leadership? Do we have an active congressman in this district? When things happen, does he come home and try to negotiate change?"

Marmillion vows he would be more of an activist locally and a more energetic force against the "New Right" nationally. He couples this positive appeal with criticism of controversial Beilenson positions, such as his 1984 vote against a Social Security cost-of-living increase that passed 417 to 4 and his proposal to raise the federal gasoline tax by 25 cents--which would hit lower-income and Valley commuters especially hard.

"He's out of touch," Marmillion said. "Social Security is a litmus test issue for seniors. It's one of the basic rights issues."

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