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CLOSE UP / THE '94 CAMPAIGN : House Parties Bring Politics Home

October 11, 1994|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Strictly speaking, the party that Sharon and Dan Beauchamp threw in their sunny back yard in La Crescenta this weekend was a political event: a "house party" to rally support for Gov. Pete Wilson. But to hear some of the guests talk, you'd have thought politics was a dirty word.

One guest, a retired Glendale engineer, expressed his distaste for state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Wilson's Democratic rival, by noting that "she comes from a political family." The engineer's wife made a point of saying she was not "a political person" herself--she just felt strongly about making things better.

Between bites of guacamole, the 40 guests seemed to enjoy the chance to talk about their hopes and fears for California's future. ("It's good to hear other people's opinions," said one woman. "Sometimes you just think it's you.") And more than half the crowd signed up to volunteer for Wilson during the final four weeks before the Nov. 8 election.

But this wasn't politics, said a hairdresser from Tujunga. Or was it?

*

The campaign house party is a staple of the political season, designed to personalize a candidate and make his or her message seem familiar. Not that most party-goers actually get to meet the candidate.

Before the primary election, when 500 house parties were held in Brown's honor, the candidate attended six. The rest saw a nine-minute videotaped biography of the Democrat. Beginning Sunday, when the California Democratic Party begins hosting 1,000 house parties to raise money to get out the Democratic vote, another videotape will be unveiled.

Similarly, of the 1,100 pro-Wilson parties that began last weekend throughout the state, the Republican incumbent was due to show up at only one--at the Burbank home of a window treatment manufacturer. All the other parties--which were not fund-raisers, Wilson campaign officials stressed--made do with Wilson on tape.

"Yes, we're leading," Wilson says on his tape. "But there are still people who haven't heard our message. . . . Getting out the vote is the key to a winning campaign."

The tape, which includes testimonials from former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, ends with a clip from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who donned sunglasses and a leather jacket to deliver this line: "Gov. Wilson will be back!"

But viewing a video or shaking the candidate's hand isn't really the point, said Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. The house parties provide a rare opportunity to come together to talk, argue and feel something that fewer and fewer Americans feel these days: politically involved.

"We've so sanitized the campaigns to the point that they're mostly media ads and events that are staged for the purpose of media coverage . . . in which the participants are hand selected," said Berg. "There are very few opportunities for people to be involved in a meaningful way in a campaign. It's not surprising that they tend to tune out."

Politics, Berg laments, has gotten a bad name. "In point of fact, government is politics. Life is politics."

*

Sharon Beauchamp didn't know it, but she was proving Berg's point. Before the guests arrived Saturday, she explained how concern about her two sons' schooling prompted her to run for the Board of Education in 1979. Back then, she admits, "I didn't realize it was politics."

Today, four elections later, she is the Glendale school board president. And she believes she has learned something that is just as true for statewide candidates as for local ones: small, informal gatherings work.

"Whoever I support, I always have some type of party," she said. "It's that personal contact. Even if the candidate doesn't walk door-to-door, people know that we have worked together and they can take my word."

Not only that, they can bounce their words off each other--which seemed to be what Beauchamp's guests enjoyed most of all. Sure, Schwarzenegger's testimonial got a few laughs--especially when Warren Boehm, who owns a La Crescenta insurance agency, noted that just last week, the tough-guy actor had endorsed a Democrat: Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

"I'm sure there was a little arm-twisting there," Boehm said with a wink. (Schwarzenegger is married to Maria Shriver, Kennedy's niece).

Mostly, though, they talked about issues within the context of their own lives. On the economy, the Tujunga hairdresser offered this: If you think beauticians are exempt from the recession, think again.

"People are stretching their haircuts out for a couple of extra weeks," she said, shaking her well-coiffed head. "We're down in the basement and it'll be a while before we're upstairs again."

On illegal immigration, the retired engineer said that while he supports Wilson, he opposes Proposition 187, a Wilson-backed ballot measure that seeks to deny state benefits such as public schooling and non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants.

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