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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / 36TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT : Brooks Hammers at Harman's Ties to Clinton

October 20, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas) held up a Time magazine photo of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), beaming at President Clinton.

"It's bad enough you had to vote for (the Clinton budget plan), but don't look happy about it," he quipped at a recent Manhattan Beach fund-raiser for Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Susan Brooks, Harman's Republican opponent in one of California's most competitive congressional races.

A parade of nationally known Republicans has descended on the 36th Congressional District, which straddles the coast from Venice to San Pedro, for a simple reason: Harman fits the perfect profile of a vulnerable incumbent Democrat this year. She's a freshman, she's generally been a Clinton team player, and voter registration in her district is split almost evenly--the latest figures show Democrats account for 43% of the voters, Republicans 42%.

Yet while many other Democrats run away from the White House in their reelection campaigns, Harman walks a tightrope: She promotes her ties to Washington powerbrokers--when they come through for the district--but she also seizes on the opportunity to distance herself from the Administration.

Her campaign also has deep pockets, including a war chest of almost $500,000 and, if needed, Harman's personal wealth. Come Halloween, she will take the unusual step for a congressional candidate of buying advertising time on television stations that broadcast throughout the Los Angeles area.

Harman, 49, has been prepared for a tough reelection since she scored a surprising victory over then-Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores two years ago. During that time, Harman has repeatedly returned from Washington to tout her accomplishments.

"Because of the nature of the district, she's always going to have a tough challenger," said Betsy Mullins, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Although not as well-funded as the incumbent, Brooks, 44, has raised a respectable $155,000 since the primary. And her strategy is straightforward: She banks on catching an anti-Clinton tide on Election Day.

"I'm running against Jane Harman and Bill Clinton," Brooks tells passersby as she walks precincts.

She calls the 1992 budget plan the "Clinton-Harman tax increase" and notes that Harman has sided with the President on 90% of her votes. Brooks also argues that Harman has voted for pared-down defense budgets that have cost the district jobs and endangered national security.

"She comes to the district and acts like a Reagan Republican," Brooks said. "But she goes back to Washington and votes like a Clinton liberal."

Harman rejects the notion that she's a Clinton clone. In speeches, she says she broke with the President in backing the balanced budget amendment and the Penny-Kasich bill, a proposal to make further cuts in the deficit. And in one of her highest-profile votes, she opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though Clinton and a host of other Administration figures pressured her to support it.

"If (Brooks) wants to run against Bill Clinton, there's a presidential election coming up in 1996," Harman said of her opponent's strategy. "This is a local campaign. . . . It's about my record of coming through for local voters, and I have done that faithfully."

Indeed, it is Harman's ability to push the right buttons in Washington that has impressed a host of South Bay civic leaders and aerospace executives--many of them Republicans.

Drawing on contacts she made as a deputy Cabinet secretary in the Jimmy Carter White House, she has helped persuade Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and CIA Director James R. Woolsey to visit the district's aerospace companies.

She called old friend Les Aspin, then the secretary of defense, to lobby him to keep the Los Angeles Air Force Base off the 1993 closure list. It was. And she has used her seats on the House Armed Services and House Science, Space and Technology committees to push for her district's military projects and defense conversion efforts.

"She's been criticized as a Washington insider, but it's refreshing to have someone who has the contacts to make things happen," said former Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert, who backed Flores in 1992 but supports Harman this year.

*

The Harman camp even believes that the much-publicized photo with the President will backfire: In a brochure, Brooks' campaign labeled it as taken at a White House ceremony after the House narrowly passed the Clinton budget plan. The photo was really taken several days earlier, when Clinton signed an executive order on deficit reduction.

"We're not going to put up with distortion," Harman said. "We're going to get the facts out, where I stand and where she stands."

But the Brooks campaign continues to display the photo. "Jane Harman wants to debate when this photo happened," Brooks said. "I want to debate why it happened."

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