WASHINGTON — In July, Mark Murray began hearing rumors from friends in Democratic circles that Republican Bruce Herschensohn regularly visited the Seventh Veil nude dancing club in Hollywood.
As policy director of the Sacramento-based lobbying group Californians Against Waste, Murray is an ardent environmentalist who wanted a like-minded Democrat such as Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. So, in the weeks before Election Day, Murray watched with dismay as Boxer squandered a 22-point lead in statewide polls without attacking her conservative opponent for patronizing a Sunset Boulevard strip joint.
"As much as anything, folks kept talking about it publicly--maybe I was guilty of this myself--hoping we wouldn't have to wait for Boxer to spring this," Murray said.
Four days before the Nov. 3 election, Murray got his wish when the political director of the California Democratic Party confronted Herschensohn at a campaign appearance in Chico. The outburst by party official Bob Mulholland plunged the final days of the campaign into a furious exchange of accusations.
Critics attacked Herschensohn as a hypocrite for observing striptease acts while embracing conservative religious values. Herschensohn countered that Boxer had organized a sleazy last-minute political smear.
Most political analysts do not believe that the disclosure decided the election. But many said the incident slowed Herschensohn's momentum in the final days of the campaign and helped Boxer roll to a comfortable victory by 5 percentage points.
Seven weeks after the election, questions linger about the origin of the political attack. Herschensohn maintains that Boxer was behind the eleventh-hour attempt to discredit him. Some key players continue to offer accounts that seem contradictory or raise doubt.
To answer these questions, The Times conducted more than 50 interviews with people inside the campaigns and others knowledgeable about the climactic events of the Senate race.
No evidence has emerged that Boxer ordered the disclosure or knew about it in advance. But the interviews revealed that at least some Boxer campaign officials were not as in the dark about the disclosure as they have claimed.
Although Boxer and some top aides say they knew nothing of the Herschensohn rumors, these rumors circulated widely among Boxer supporters for months before Mulholland's outburst.
Mulholland continues to say that his was a rogue action and that no one knew about his intentions. But the day before the disclosure, a Washington political activist says she was told by a Boxer fund-raiser that the disclosure was going to occur soon.
At the time, Mulholland's attack was widely condemned by Republicans and Democrats as a personal smear beyond the bounds of accepted political discourse. The passing of weeks has mellowed some of those views. After criticizing Mulholland, California Democratic Party Chairman Phil Angelides now says the attack on Herschensohn was a legitimate issue to raise.
Over the past month, The Times interviewed Boxer, Herschensohn, their campaign aides, Democratic and Republican officials, political consultants and other knowledgeable sources. Here is what was found:
When did reports about Herschensohn's patronage of nude establishments begin circulating?
Soon after Herschensohn defeated Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Palo Alto) in the June primary, rumors that he had visited nude clubs and purchased adult magazines began swirling within California political circles.
The reports were so widespread that someone such as Murray, who was not directly involved in the campaign, heard repeatedly from acquaintances around the state that Herschensohn had visited the Seventh Veil.
"I felt this information would come out," Murray said. "If not the Boxer campaign, then somebody who really cared about this race would have made the information public because too many people knew about it."
Why didn't the information surface earlier?
Many people dismissed the reports as unsubstantiated rumor or irrelevant to the campaign.
A Times reporter in Sacramento was told by a Los Angeles broadcaster about rumors that Herschensohn had visited strip joints. After conferring with editors, Times staff writer Dan Morain decided to focus on the personal finances and public policy positions of the candidates and spent little effort trying to confirm the tip.
The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women was contacted by a woman who said she was a stripper at the Seventh Veil and who reported that Herschensohn was in the place "all the time," according to chapter President Tammy Bruce, who spoke with the woman.
Bruce said she judged the call to be neither legitimate nor relevant. Once the information was made public, Bruce and her organization confirmed Herschensohn's visits to the Seventh Veil by contacting three employees and issued a statement criticizing him.