Last Wednesday, a young state Assembly candidate took the microphone as a roomful of Republican campaign contributors loosened their belts after a fund-raising dinner. But the candidate didn't deliver the predictable speech about the need to crack down on criminals and unleash private enterprise.
He did impersonations.
First he did Ronald Reagan, mimicking the ex-President's avuncular laugh and mannerisms. Then he did George Bush, Dean Martin and George Burns.
And when candidate Robert Wilcox wound up his routine, his audience applauded--if not thunderously, at least warmly.
"I'm following Ronald Reagan's footsteps," said Wilcox, 24, in a recent interview. "First show business, then politics."
Since his high school days, Wilcox, an aide to GOP Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette of Northridge, has moonlighted as an amateur impressionist at open-mike nights, company parties and GOP dinners.
But for the next three months at least, Wilcox will be concentrating on politics as he campaigns to replace La Follette in the Republican-dominated 38th Assembly District, which arcs across the northern San Fernando Valley from Hidden Hills to Tujunga.
Last Tuesday, La Follette abruptly announced that she will not seek reelection and, in a familiar political baton-passing ritual, endorsed Wilcox to succeed her. Wilcox also is expected to be backed by La Follette's longtime ally, state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), in his quest for the GOP nomination in the district.
Wilcox's heir-apparent status didn't last long. Two days after La Follette's surprise revelation, Granada Hills real estate broker Paula Boland, a longtime GOP grass-roots activist, announced that she would challenge Wilcox in the June 5 primary.
Boland, 50, was swiftly endorsed by two prominent GOP figures in the Valley, Assemblywoman Cathie Wright of Simi Valley and Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson. And political observers predict a number of other candidates will make a bid for the seat, which La Follette has held for 10 years.
Despite his youth, Wilcox is a seasoned veteran of local GOP political battles and is considered a strong contender to succeed La Follette. At age 15, he was youth chairman of Davis' first state Senate campaign. After a stint as a part-time field representative for Davis, Wilcox joined Davis' ill-fated 1986 campaign for the U.S. Senate, acting as campaign coordinator and helping with fund raising and speech writing.
Since 1986, he has been an aide to La Follette, gaining visibility as a prime mover behind her long but unsuccessful campaign to carve the sprawling, 610,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District into smaller districts.
With his slightly oversized glasses and suits that seem to flap a bit on his gangly 6-foot, 4-inch frame, Wilcox has the air of a high school Latin teacher on his first day of class. But in Valley Republican circles, he is known as a clever political coalition-builder and deal maker.
In an effort to persuade Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates to run for mayor last year, for example, Wilcox quietly raised enough money to perform preliminary opinion polling for Gates, according to Eric Rose, 24, a close friend and fellow GOP worker.
But Wilcox has shown unusual precociousness in entertainment as well as politics. His impressions are so popular in some circles that he is sometimes paid for his appearances, and he admits to being star-struck by performers from Frank Sinatra to songwriter Sammy Kahn.
"I'm telling this story against my better judgment, but I won "The Gong Show" when I was 12 years old," Wilcox said.
"I did this celebrity news routine. I had George Burns interviewing Jimmy Carter in the Rose Garden. I had Jack Benny doing the weather. And Richard Nixon did commercials," he said.
An on-and-off student at Cal State Northridge since 1983, he is a journalism major and hopes to work someday as a television news reporter. But for years he has fantasized about breaking into show business.
"I flirted around with getting into show business full time, " he said. "I love entertaining--singing and dancing--the kind of old-time entertainment that doesn't exist anymore.
"You know, Sammy Davis Jr. or Jerry Lewis--they're the kind of all-around entertainers who don't exist anymore. . . . To see people out there smiling and enjoying themselves, that means a lot to me."
Raised in the Valley, Wilcox was the third child of a McDonnell Douglas computer analyst and a housewife. A churchgoing Presbyterian, he attended the private Los Angeles Baptist High School in Sepulveda, where he was student body president.
"We had Bible classes every day," he said. "Some teachers would start every class with a prayer. It definitely had a fundamentalist Christian outlook."
A conservative, Wilcox favors an end to bilingual education in Los Angeles public schools and mandatory anti-drug education for students beginning in kindergarten.