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Apologetic Bates Plans Comeback : Politics: Shadowed by charges of sexual harassment, ex-congressman vies for old seat.

September 28, 1991|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying that "sometimes you learn more by losing than you do by winning," former Rep. Jim Bates plans to announce his candidacy for his old congressional seat today, launching a comeback attempt pitting him against fellow Democrats and lingering controversy over the sexual harassment charges that contributed to his defeat.

In speeches in Encanto and National City, Bates, describing himself as "a man with a mission," will begin trying to resurrect a 20-year public career that took him from San Diego City Hall to the U.S. House of Representatives before his November, 1990, defeat by Republican Randall (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego).

Though Bates' former 44th Congressional District, now heavily Democratic, will be altered by the redistricting process under way in Sacramento, its new boundaries--or that of a new, fifth congressional seat expected to be created here--probably will include most of its existing territory in southern San Diego.

He plans to run, Bates explained, in whichever district most closely resembles his former one, even if that means running against Cunningham rather than seeking an "open" seat in a new district.

For Bates, today's speeches represent a public mea culpa over his 1989 rebuke by the House Ethics Committee on sexual harassment charges lodged against him by two female staffers and what he terms other "personal and political mistakes" made during his eight-year congressional career.

Although Bates offered some mild apologies in the past, he hopes that his new act of political contrition will strike a responsive chord with voters and enable him to finally put the controversy behind him.

"When I talk about learning from losing, I think that's something most people can relate to," said the 50-year-old Bates, who was a San Diego City Councilman and county supervisor before his 1982 election to Congress.

"There's not a person alive who hasn't lost at something or made mistakes and tried to bounce back," Bates said. "This establishes an emotional link that I think will make people more receptive to my message. I also hope that people will see that I've apologized as much as I possibly can, so we can put this to rest and move on to other issues."

Political consultant Rick Taylor described Bates' plea for voters' forgiveness as a "decent message" that plays off the public's general willingness to give people--"even politicians," he joked--second chances.

"But his problem is that his opponents probably will nail him over and over again on this stuff, and that's going to make it tougher to make it go away," Taylor said.

Similarly, consultant David Lewis, who managed the campaign of Bates' 1988 Republican opponent, Rob Butterfield, said that Bates' strategy "has possibilities" but could engender public skepticism over whether his apologies are heartfelt or politically motivated.

"What makes people know for sure this is a new, improved version of Jim Bates?" Lewis said. "This may be a different Jim Bates that wants to get elected, but what happens after that? Some voters probably will buy this, but a lot of them won't, and I doubt that any of his opponents will."

Other Democrats mentioned as 1992 congressional candidates include state Sen. Wadie P. Deddeh (D-Chula Vista), San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner, Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego) and lawyer Byron Georgiou, who lost to Bates in the 1990 Democratic primary in the 44th District. Whether they face Bates in next year's primary or seek another seat depends largely on how the new congressional district lines are drawn.

In today's speeches, Bates plans to apologize profusely for transgressions ranging from specific votes and a preoccupation with politics rather than governance to insensitivity toward his staff and a personal style that he concedes "projected an arrogance of office."

"Though I'm proud of my stands on the issues and my votes in Congress on critical national policies, I basically became too arrogant and assumed that the trappings of incumbency would protect me," Bates said. "Instead, with the anti-incumbent mood, they defeated me."

Bates' own post-election polling suggested that his vote for a hefty congressional pay raise--a subject on which Cunningham excoriated him in their campaign--was a more significant factor in his 46%-45% defeat than the sexual harassment issue. Hoping to minimize that political liability, Bates conceded that he erred in voting for a pay raise "at a time when ordinary citizens were having difficulty making ends meet and the federal deficit was out of control."

As a congressman, Bates said that he also "spent too much time preoccupied with raising money for reelection, with too large a staff and listening too much to political consultants."

If he is returned to Congress, Bates said his top priority will be political reform. Calling himself "an outsider who knows the insider's game," Bates said he would push for tougher limits on political contributions and a ceiling on total campaign spending, elimination of political action committees, a reduction of congressional committees and members' staffs by half, and term limitations for House and Senate members.

"I like to think I've learned from losing--that I've learned humility, that I've learned about loyalty and friendship, about introspection and wisdom, and that it's not enough to go along to get along," Bates said. "If . . . voters give me a second chance, I intend to use it wisely."

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