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Of Privacy, Politics and Public Pain

October 17, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The California gubernatorial debate of 1994 will be remembered as the time a candidate announced on statewide television that her daughter had been raped.

"Date raped," the candidate later told reporters. Her "middle daughter. It happened many years ago." No, a police report wasn't filed.

And that's all she wanted to say about it.

But, of course, others--mainly ordinary people--will have much to say about it because this is a very human story of some sicko bully boy and a tragic victim that touches real lives. It is a story with legs, as we say in the news business--if for no other reason than it is great grist for talk radio.

These are topics ripe for listener call-ins after Friday night's debate between Gov. Pete Wilson and Treasurer Kathleen Brown:

* How far should a politician go in exposing the secrets of his/her family?

* Did Brown have her daughter Sascha's permission to tell the state she had been date raped?

* Was Brown's disclosure calculated or spontaneous?

* What effect will it have on her campaign, which until the debate had seemed in free fall?


As for divulging family secrets--and perhaps violating a daughter's privacy--hardly anything seems off limits in this era of baring one's soul for Sally, Geraldo or Oprah.

Rep. Mike Huffington, debating Sen. Dianne Feinstein, talked emotionally of his wife Arianna's previous miscarriage when asked why he kept living in Houston after buying a house in Santa Barbara; his business was in Texas, but his pregnant wife needed to rest in California after she became pregnant again. Feinstein accused him of avoiding California taxes.

Wilson opined Saturday that it's "perfectly legitimate" for a candidate to cite personal tragedy.

Clearly, this is a family matter. So did Sascha, now 25, tell her mom it was OK to broadcast the rape? It seems so, but we're not 100% sure.

Brown--a politician's daughter herself--periodically has touched base with her three children to ask, according to a close aide, "what they feel is out of bounds and what isn't." She did so again early last week.

The conversation with the rape victim went something like this, according to the aide: "You know, Sascha, it's getting hot, getting ugly. This kind of thing could come out. Are you prepared for it to be made public?" "Yes, but this is very painful, and not something I personally want to describe or discuss."

The aide added, "The implication was it was OK. But that was not the point of the conversation."

After the debate, the aide said, Brown phoned Sascha to tell her of the revelation. They talked for half an hour. "Sascha said she understood."


So was it scripted or impulsive?

Brown aides swear it was not planned; they'd never even heard of the rape. Not even Brown's husband knew she would mention it.

Her post-debate explanation was that she had just gotten "sick and tired" of Wilson "misrepresenting my position on crime . . . and suggesting that a woman, a mother, can't be tough on crime."

But I talked to two veteran consultants, both Democrats, who found this very hard to believe. "I don't think anything was spontaneous," said one. "Remember how she said, 'My campaign is just beginning?' This was an ace they were holding back."

The other consultant agreed: "The first thing you say to a candidate who is perceived to be soft on crime is, 'Has anybody in your family ever been victimized by a crime?' If this was so private that you wouldn't even tell your campaign manager, why would you talk about it for the first time on television? She wasn't even asked about rape."

Brown had been asked whether she would wrestle with her conscience when imposing the death penalty. Anybody would, she replied, then tore into Wilson:

"You cannot possibly imagine what it's like to be a woman at night, leaving the office, going to your car, worrying about your safety . . . what it's like to be a mother, waiting for your daughter to come home . . . and having (to) comfort her, because she's been raped. Or your son call while I'm working, to say come home because I've been robbed and mugged. . . . Don't question my commitment to be tough on crime."

Her son Zebediah, 23, was mugged in Manhattan.

Myself, I don't believe her disclosure was actually scripted, but think she had been rehearsing the ad-libs for some time in the shower.

This should help Brown get back some Democratic women who had abandoned her. She looked sincere and related to people. Many voters may take another look. Many will have to in order for the debate to be remembered also as the time a candidate instinctively rescued her losing campaign.

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