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GOP Efforts to Unseat Harman Move Into High Gear : Politics: Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Susan Brooks and former Palos Verdes Estates Councilman Ron Florance seek Republican nomination.

March 20, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months, Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Susan Brooks has canvassed South Bay's supermarkets and landmarks in her bid to unseat Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey).

Brooks' opponent in the Republican primary, former Palos Verdes Estates Councilman Ron Florance, already has hung 1,000 signs throughout the 36th District, which stretches from Marina del Rey to San Pedro.

Both candidates, the only two Republicans to enter the race by last week's filing deadline, are quickly spreading their names and messages outside the peninsula. But political analysts agree that the winner of the GOP's June 7 primary must not only emerge from that race relatively unscathed, but surmount another hurdle in seeking to unseat Harman.

"Anybody can establish name recognition," said H. Eric Schockman, a USC political science professor who has been following the race. "But you can't just let the voters know who you are. You've got to convince voters that there is a good reason to vote against an incumbent."

That may be a tough task, he said. When Harman announced her reelection bid two weeks ago, she already had a war chest of almost $500,000 and the endorsements of the South Bay's top aerospace executives. Even former Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert, a Republican, has crossed party lines and plans to back the first-term congresswoman.

"If I were a betting man, I would say that Jane Harman is sitting very pretty right now," Schockman said. "But I know that you can't get too cocky this early in the race."

The district is split almost evenly between the parties, with 40% registered as Republicans and 39% registered as Democrats. In the 1992 election, Harman benefited when Republicans divided over the issue of abortion. But the issue may be moot this time since both Brooks and Florance are abortion rights supporters, as is Harman. Still, this year's GOP challengers are not 100% harmonious.

Brooks, a former special education teacher, said Florance is the "old-fashioned Republican" who is depending on money and political handlers to carry him to victory.

Florance, an investment banker and financier, chipped in $150,000 of his own money in the race and estimates that he will have a war chest of $250,000 by the end of the month. Brooks has put $13,000 of her own money into the race, bringing her total raised to $70,000.

"The heart of our campaign is people, the heart of Ron Florance's campaign is money," she said.

Florance defends spending his own money, saying it is proof to potential contributors that he is committed to the race.

"I don't think (Brooks) can beat Harman," he said. "I don't think she has the broad- based financial support to get the job done."

Harman, who reported spending $1.6 million to win the seat in 1992, declined to say how much she planned to spend on this election, although she predicted it would be an expensive race.

By June, Florance said he hopes to raise $500,000, a sum he said will be necessary to mount a serious challenge.

"You can't do that by knocking on doors," he said. "You have got to go to the media to get the message across."

Still, either Republican could have a tough time if the California economy shows substantial signs of improvement by November. Harman, who voted for President Clinton's budget plan, says that such an economic turnaround will prove she made the right decision.

"My budget vote, which is controversial, will prove to be a wise vote," Harman said. "(The) $500 million in deficit reduction, some of which has already occurred, I think is spurring the economy."

But Brooks and Florance point to Harman's budget vote as one of her shortcomings. Both cite a Heritage Foundation study showing that the South Bay district will be hit with $1.1 billion in new taxes over five years.

The recovery "is the (Bush) Administration reflecting on the economy right now," Brooks said. "Over the long run, the tax plan will have a negative impact."

Florance agreed.

"If we didn't have a tax package," Florance said, "the (economic) cycle would be even more robust."

Both Republican candidates, in fact, are casting Harman as an inside-the-Beltway, Washington insider who sides with Clinton on almost all major votes.

"Jane Harman talks conservative Republican and then votes Clinton, tax and spend liberal," he said. "Jane Harman votes 90% of the time with the Clinton Administration."

Said Brooks: "She speaks just like a Republican. But she has a very different agenda than she espouses to us."

Harman, however, denies that she gives blind support to the White House. She points to her efforts to seek greater cuts in the budget, which Clinton has opposed.

"The subliminal theme (of her opponents) is: I am a Democrat and this is a district for Republicans," she said. "I am a representative, and I have fought for people who happen to be Democrats, Republicans and independents, with good results."

Also running in the 36th district are Libertarian Jack Tyler, Green Party candidate Robert (Bob) Long, and American Independent Joseph (Joe) Fields.

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