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CAMPAIGN JOURNAL : A Tale of 2 Houses: Huffington Returns to His Humble Roots


BELLAIRE, Tex. — Michael Huffington is driving a rented white Lincoln Continental through his old neighborhood, talking about one of the chores he used to do as a kid.

"I think we washed the dishes and I think we dried the dishes, if I can recall going back 30 years," says the Santa Barbara congressman. "I remember mowing the lawn, that was my chore. But it wasn't a chore, it was fun as a kid."

Huffington swings the car left onto Evergreen Street and parks near 5415, a three-bedroom, ranch-style home in this Houston suburb with a one-car garage and a towering pecan tree in the front yard.

This is the house he wants California to see. It is the house where he grew up and the one he is showing in television commercials aired throughout the state as part of his campaign to win the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in June in order to challenge Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein.

The candidate hopes this simple home will convey his average American roots and reassure voters that he can still understand their lives even though he is now enormously rich. He also hopes it will counter the images he expects his opponents to use in the campaign, such as the house he lives in now.

That is the house he doesn't want California to see. Huffington says reporters will not be allowed into the $4-million mansion he bought in the hills above Santa Barbara because he believes it may be offensive to some people who don't share his financial success.

"I don't want to separate myself from that house," says Huffington, 46, whose family-run oil company became successful when he was a teen-ager. "But I'm saying I am human, just like everybody else. . . . I don't flaunt anything I have and I never will. Why would you ever show something like that?"

This is not a small issue for Huffington. He views himself as a populist who is trying to appeal across income, party and ethnic boundaries. But the rap on Huffington when he paid more than $5 million of his own money to win a congressional office in 1992 was that he is an inexperienced aristocrat seeking to buy high office.

The candidate's answer is always to cite his middle-class youth. So when he was pressed on the issue recently by a reporter, he suggested a guided tour of his boyhood neighborhood to help understand his character as well as his political inspirations.

It was not a traditional campaign event. There was no news release. No staff. No organized schedule. No speech. Just the candidate, dressed casually in a striped polo shirt and black cotton pants, driving the rented Lincoln with its climate control set at 67 degrees, at times triggering the air conditioner even though it was about the same temperature outside.

When he stepped out of the car on Evergreen Street, the tour was a narration of little-boy stories that sounded so plain and cute they could have come from one of his favorite television shows of the time: "Leave It to Beaver."

This bedroom window is where he used to hang his feet out while he slept on the stiflingly hot and humid summer nights. Out front is where he ran a lemonade stand. That huge oak tree was just a sapling then and its branches made good bows and arrows. For one birthday, his father borrowed a pony to ride in the back yard. And in the summer, the neighborhood youngsters gathered in the street each evening to chase the "fog machine," which was really a pesticide spray to keep the mosquitoes down.

The block had plenty of children, including one boy named Larry who got him into some mischief. "I didn't do it, but I was there when he fried a frog," he says. "All these years later, I feel so guilty about it."

Huffington confesses that he was a 1950s "couch potato," watching television so much that he eventually needed pliers to change the channel because the handle broke off. His other favorite hangout was the Bellaire Movie Theater. Third was the YMCA swimming pool.

Back in the car, Huffington's narration evolves into a political analysis. Bellaire, in many ways, is a metaphor for the problems facing America, he says. It is still a nice community, he says, but its residents have to struggle harder for the same standard of living his family enjoyed.

Two-income parents cannot provide the supervision or support that children need, he says. Children worry about crime in their neighborhoods and at school. And television shows like "Leave It to Beaver" have turned into stories that celebrate violence.

"I can remember a lot of TV shows we saw when we were younger as if they were yesterday--it's imprinted, I can see it right in my mind," he says. "Well, if they have this stuff imprinted when they're 11 years old, good God, no wonder some of these kids are going off in the wrong direction."

What has changed for middle-income families since his 1950s youth, Huffington says, is the financial burden they are forced to pay to a wasteful federal bureaucracy. If government economic policy was working, he says, families would have more time for each other, leading to less crime and a better opportunity for youth to learn social values.

"I don't think I ever had a negative experience here, except for that frog," he says. "I just feel good about having grown up here because this was a good solid place."

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