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Congressional Hopeful Sets Campaign Spending Record

October 28, 1992|ALAN C. MILLER and DWIGHT MORRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Michael Huffington, a wealthy Santa Barbara Republican seeking office for the first time Nov. 3, has gone on a spending spree that is unparalleled in the history of American congressional campaigns.

Huffington has spent a record-shattering $4.4 million--95% of it his own money--in his bid to win a 22nd District seat representing Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. He spent about $3.5 million in his June primary victory over veteran Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino.

Huffington faces Democratic Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gloria Ochoa next week. She has mounted a spirited campaign in the Republican-leaning district but must overcome Huffington's seven-month onslaught of sophisticated television, radio, videocassette and direct-mail ads and a telephone campaign that has made him almost a household name there.

In a year when the public's low esteem for Congress might seem to devalue a seat in the House, some have called Huffington the congressional equivalent of independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, who says he plans to spend $60 million of his own money on his campaign.

To put Huffington's largess in perspective, consider:

* The previous record for a congressional campaign was $2.6 million spent by then-Republican Rep. Jack Kemp in a 1986 New York reelection race.

* This year, Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), the fourth-ranking Democratic leader in the House, who faces an intense challenge, is second among big spenders in California House races with a little more than $1.2 million as of Oct. 15.

* Huffington's expenditures have already topped the $4.1-million total spent by the average U.S. Senate incumbent up for reelection in 1990. The senators' average spending covers an entire six-year term.

Indeed, Huffington's total advertising budget, gleaned from recent reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, was $2,938,419--rivaling the amounts spent by California's four U.S. Senate candidates through Oct. 15. Huffington has paid more than $1.9 million for television and radio advertising and more than $946,000 for mailed advertising.

Marty Wilson, a veteran political operative who is managing the California Bush-Quayle campaign, said he was "flabbergasted" by Huffington's spending, even though he briefly served as the candidate's campaign consultant late last year.

"It's just sort of a curiosity," Wilson said. "People go: 'Why is this seat worth that?' But to him it is. And it's his money. So God bless him."

Critics of the campaign finance system are not so forgiving: They say Huffington's multimillion-dollar candidacy exemplifies the need for reform.

Huffington defends the spending as being necessary to level the playing field in the primary against incumbent Lagomarsino, who had served in city, state and federal office since 1958.

"I was running against someone in the primary who had been in office for 34 years and I had zero percent name recognition," Huffington said through a spokeswoman. "Much of the money was spent to get my name recognition up to over 92% and to get my message out. I'm not spending so much in the general" election campaign.

Much like Perot, Huffington also has sought to defuse the issue of his unprecedented personal spending by touting himself as beholden to no one. He has made reforming Congress a cornerstone of his campaign, while running as a conservative businessman who also favors abortion rights and opposes new oil drilling off the California coast.

Huffington, 45, tall and trim, has engineering and economics degrees from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard. He served briefly in the Reagan Administration as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense for negotiations policy and owns a film production company. His Greek-born wife, Arianna, is a best-selling author and socialite who has been active in the campaign.

Huffington's wealth is derived from a merchant bank he started and his share of the family's Houston oil, gas and real estate firm that was sold to Taiwan interests in 1990. His father, Roy M. Huffington, made a fortune through natural gas interests in Indonesia.

The elder Huffington, a member of the Republican National Committee's elite "Team 100" who contribute $100,000 or more to the party, was rewarded when President Bush appointed him ambassador to Austria in 1990. Fortune magazine called him one of America's richest men.

On the campaign trail, Huffington's financial pace has slowed since the primary, when he spent $96 per vote. Still, his $960,193 outlay between July 1 and Oct. 15 was nearly twice the total spent by the average House candidate in open races in 1990. It is also more than double the $454,334 that Democratic opponent Ochoa spent by Oct. 15.

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