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Decision '92 : VOTING IN THE VALLEY / AN ELECTION GUIDE : STATE SENATE / 17th DISTRICT : Financial Woes Aside, Rogers Is Optimistic


State Sen. Don Rogers' financial and legal troubles might sink a politician most places.

But in the newly drawn conservative 17th District, Rogers (R-Bakersfield) expects to easily win election in November despite owing so much money in federal income taxes--nearly $150,000--that he recently filed for bankruptcy protection to keep the Internal Revenue Service from seizing his personal property.

Instead of losing supporters, Rogers said, his financial woes will probably help him. There are plenty of folks in these parts who have been harassed by the IRS, he said.

"I got 190 calls on it," said Rogers, 64, of Tehachapi, who has held elected office since 1973. "One hundred, eighty-eight of those calls were supportive and two were negative."

Rogers--who said he will pay the IRS what he owes--is running against Democrat William M. Olenick, 40, a probation officer and former member of the Antelope Valley Union High School District. Also running is Libertarian Party candidate Fred Heiser, 36, a Santa Clarita resident.

Rogers is considered a sure winner because registration in the district--which includes the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys in Los Angeles County--is overwhelmingly Republican. Democratic registration is about 36%, with Republicans making up 52% of the total registered voters.

Rogers has also raised more than 10 times the amount of money to spend on the election than his opponents. By mid-summer, Rogers had reported having $128,000 to use for the race, nearly all from business groups representing agricultural interests, utilities and the health care industry.

The 17th District--created during the recent reapportionment--includes, in addition to the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, the cities of Needles, Barstow, Tehachapi, Bishop and all of Inyo County. It includes the oil fields of eastern Kern County and the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County.

Rogers in 1990 was elected to a four-year term in the 16th state Senate District. But he has decided to run for election in the new 17th District, which will include much of his old territory. If he loses the election, he can still serve the remaining two years in the 16th District.

Rogers started his political career on the Bakersfield City Council in 1973 until his election to the Assembly in 1978. He served there until winning a state Senate seat in 1986. He recently moved from his longtime home in Bakersfield to a house in Tehachapi to run in the new 17th District.

Rogers is a pro-business, anti-tax, antiabortion conservative who is best known for his successful efforts in abolishing the state's inheritance tax in 1982. He said the slumping economy is forcing residents to realize that the state cannot afford to be as generous as it has in the past.

"I think Californians are going to have to recognize there is a bottom to the barrel," Rogers said. "We can't continue to spend at such high levels when our revenues are declining."

Olenick shares many of Roger's conservative views. The two men agree that some state environmental regulations should be eased to lower costs for business. Both support the death penalty.

"Jobs are an important issue," Olenick said. "We need to make it easier for businesses to operate here, and displaced workers from defense industries need to be trained for other work."

Rogers opposes abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or when the health of the mother is endangered. Olenick supports the right of abortion.

Ironically, both men have also been hit with unfavorable publicity while seeking reelection.

Olenick was arrested on suspicion of assault for allegedly slapping his wife during his 1989 campaign for reelection to the school board in Antelope Valley and lost the race. No charges were ever filed, and the woman--who is now divorced from Olenick--later recanted her story.

Olenick, who was the school board's top vote-getter in 1985, lost again in the 1991 election.

Olenick said he does not want to comment on Rogers' financial troubles.

"I'm asked about it, but that's not the way I campaign," Olenick said.

Rogers said changes in the tax code made in 1986 disallowed tax shelters he had invested in during the late 1970s and early 1980s. IRS officials said Rogers owes for taxes, fines, penalties and underpayments in income tax returns filed between 1979 and 1986.

Federal authorities seized Rogers' private plane to put up for auction to pay off the debt. But Rogers forestalled the auction by filing for bankruptcy at the end of July. He said on a Bakersfield radio talk show in July that IRS officials had targeted him because he is well known and would serve as a high-profile example to frighten others into paying their taxes, local newspapers reported at the time.

In the meantime, the Bakersfield Californian newspaper reported that bankruptcy papers filed by Rogers revealed that he had failed to disclose the existence of four trust funds he created to protect his assets four years ago.

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