SANTA ANA — Sen. Alan Cranston raised the hopes of environmentalists Friday by pledging to try to protect Laguna Canyon, but found himself lambasted hours later for shattering the hopes of investors who lost money in the collapse of Irvine-based Lincoln Savings & Loan.
As he wrapped up a campaign-style tour in the home county of Lincoln, Cranston found himself toe to toe with Shirley Lampel, a 58-year-old Tustin woman who became prominent after telling a congressional hearing that she blamed Cranston for the loss of her $30,000 investment when the thrift was seized. Lampel interrupted a forum on women's issues to shout at the senator from the front row of a high school auditorium.
It was the only event in a daylong tour of Orange County interrupted by protests surrounding the Lincoln scandal, which involves questions about Cranston and four other senators intervening in federal investigations of the thrift's actions.
But it underscored the task facing Cranston, who is trying to repair the political damage caused by the scandal. Since Thanksgiving, the Democratic senator has been touring the state and meeting daily with reporters in his first major public relations effort since the scandal erupted.
In an interview Friday, Cranston rejected a charge that he was one of two senators "more culpable" in the scandal than the others. And he defended his actions on behalf of Charles H. Keating Jr., who ran Lincoln's parent company, which contributed $850,000 mostly to Democratic voter registration projects at Cranston's direction.
Cranston's visit to Orange County Friday also included a discussion with elementary school students on homelessness; a private meeting with California exporting executives as well as the tour of a proposed development in Laguna Canyon.
Cranston's forum on women's issues before about 40 people in the auditorium of Century High School was opened by a small group of conservative Republican youths who threw bogus $100 bills at the stage shouting, "Have some more money senator, that's the only way you listen."
The forum was then interrupted by Lampel, who complained, "How long am I going to have to hold my hand up here. This is the only way I can get a hold of you."
Lampel complained about Cranston's relationship with Keating, insisting that it was wrong for the senator to intervene on his behalf with federal regulators and charging that it was done in return for contributions.
"Keating said he believes he bought influence. What do you think he bought?" Lampel yelled at Cranston, who appeared to remain calm during the interruptions.
Afterward, Cranston met privately with Lampel for almost 10 minutes. The woman then hurried away, saying only that she was "very, very, very pleased" with the senator's response.
In Laguna Canyon, Cranston was driven through the site of a controversial 3,200-home construction project proposed by the Irvine Co.
Cranston said he would explore the possibility of using federal money to buy open space in the canyon.
"I would like to explore the possibility of getting federal money but I can't hold out any promises," Cranston said. "We have a terrible deficit and there is competition from all over the country for money for the homeless, health care, fighting drugs. . . . "
On his arrival in Laguna Beach, a dozen environmentalists presented him with a T-shirt, flowers and newspaper clippings about opposition to the project.
Some project opponents had pinned their hopes on the Cranston visit, which came only a few days after the city of Irvine rejected a proposal to place the development in their city instead of the canyon. That move scuttled what had been briefly heralded as a major breakthrough in the dispute.
Laguna Beach officials had originally hoped that moving the development to Irvine would be an acceptable solution to all parties.
The Laguna Laurel project has fostered a decade-long dispute between the Irvine Co. and environmentalists who charge it would damage the environmentally sensitive canyon. Besides homes, it would include a shopping center, a golf course and a school as part of the self-contained community.
Laguna Beach is seeking Cranston's help to purchase about 2,150 acres from the Irvine Co. and effectively block development in the canyon.
City officials who accompanied Cranston and Irvine Co. executives on the Friday tour through scrub and rough terrain were optimistic about the senator's visit.
"He said he was interested in examining what federal resources that are out there," said Laguna Beach Councilman Robert F. Gentry. "If we accomplished that, that's a major accomplishment."
Cranston was the author of a bill in 1980 that would have preserved the southern section of the 2,150-acre Laguna Laurel project zone as open space. The bill, which died in committee, would not have affected the 400 acres where the homes are proposed. Ironically, Cranston toured the areas that the Irvine Co. already plans to designate as open space. He did not see the site where the homes would be located because he was running late for another engagement.
Neither officials from the city of Irvine nor the County of Orange attended the Friday tour.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley said he had been advised not to attend because of the possibility of litigation. Irvine city officials said they had prior commitments.
Irvine Co. officials say they will continue on with current plans for the project.