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Stands on Local Issues Could Decide 24th District Race : Constituency does not really feel connected to what is making the news in the nation's capital. Voters' concerns are about the things that affect them directly.

October 30, 1994|PAUL CLARKE | Paul Clarke of Northridge is a corporate political consultant

"All politics is local," Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, the late Speaker of the House of Representatives, opined. And, in its enigmatic way, it's one of the very few political axioms that actually work out to be true. Its effect is especially tough on candidates running for offices that are not local.

In 1978, and for every election since, candidates for Congress have been asked where they stand on Proposition 13--the state's property tax-cutting initiative.

It defined for voters those candidates who supported a tax break versus those who didn't. The pesky details didn't matter. The entire California Democrat establishment opposed Proposition 13. It hurt incumbents in 1978. Now-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren defeated an incumbent congressman that year largely on the strength of Proposition 13, after having lost to him two years before.

Similarly, congressional candidates have been asked for eight years if they supported or opposed Rose Bird's confirmation in 1986.

Proposition 13 and Rose Bird had nothing to do with congressional actions. They were, however, defining issues for California voters. Another potentially defining issue appears on next month's ballot.

Congressional races are filled with candidate appearances at which the majority of the questions concern issues over which Congress has no jurisdiction--real estate development, local crime, traffic hazards. The candidate who is primed to talk about foreign trade and nuclear proliferation is often caught off guard.

In the early 1980s when George Bush was vice president, his staff would contact the staffs of congressional offices in the areas he was to visit. They would ask, "What are the local issues?" Bush's people did not want him trapped by a question regarding a local sewer bond issue.

I believe Tip O'Neill meant "local" to mean those issues voters "back home" read about in their local newspapers, not what appears in the Washington Post.

When I wrote two months ago about the 24th Congressional District race between incumbent Anthony Beilenson and challenger Richard Sybert, Congress was still in session. The local news was filled with stories about health care reform, various international crises and, of course, the O.J. Simpson trial.

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The only one of those stories still in the paper with any regularity is Simpson, and even it's lost a lot of its excitement and immediacy. The trial itself will not get under way until after the election. Nationally, the only consistent story now is how poorly the pundits think Democrats will fare at the polls. Internationally, unless there is large-scale violence, Haiti is a yawner. And, until he tries something stupid, Saddam Hussein is old news.

If "all politics is local," national voting trends don't affect local races. Bob Dole could become Senate majority leader. Less likely--but possible--Newt Gingrich could become House Speaker. That kind of shift holds little interest to voters in Reseda, Woodland Hills or Westlake Village.

They do not perceive Washington insider issues as having an effect on them. Illegal aliens standing on street corners or carjackers lurking at the ATM are far more potent images. Dick Riordan's 1993 campaign brochure featuring a scruffy looking homeless man on the cover welcoming voters to "Mike Woo's Los Angeles" won Riordan more votes than his term limit initiative.

So what's capturing the voters' attention in the 24th District? Crime, underground versus monorail for Metrorail, various real estate developments and, most significantly, Proposition 187--the state immigration initiative. As the two candidates square off for more forums in this final campaign week, these are the topics voters are likely to ask about, not international trade agreements or lobbying reform.

What have the candidates said about these non-federal issues? After the last article I wrote dealing with the history of elections in Beilenson's district, my mailman lugged a pound of issue papers to my door from challenger Sybert.

An enclosed book had three paragraphs on schools, decidedly not a congressional front-burner issue. A packet of op-ed pieces penned by Sybert included one on crime. His campaign brochure includes a mention of growth management. His comparison brochure points out that he opposed Rose Bird. He even mentions that he is supported by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Organization--code words for supporting Proposition 13.

While crime and taxes are always effective standbys, the lightning rod in this election is clearly Proposition 187. This could provide the nexus between the national trend against Democrats and the local issue dominating the race.

Sybert supports 187. Beilenson opposes it. As this issue takes up more and more space in newspapers and more time on television news, it moves toward the top of the issues list in voters' consciousness.

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