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CONGRESS 36TH DISTRICT : Incumbency May Hinder Harman


Once again, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) had tapped one of her Washington friends for a visit to her district. This time it was CIA Director James Woolsey.

As the congresswoman introduced Woolsey at a recent gathering, she quipped: "Some of you think I know everybody. I don't know everybody. I just know everybody good."

On paper, Harman would seem to have potent weapons in her race for a second term--and connections with Washington powerbrokers is just one. There is also her adept fund raising and personal wealth, her two powerful committee posts and her host of endorsements from aerospace executives and police chiefs.

But in this election year, Harman's arsenal doesn't pack the usual punch--even with an opponent, Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Susan Brooks, who was all but unknown before the primary and has far less campaign cash. This time around, Harman is something that poll after poll says the electorate doesn't like: an incumbent, a D.C. insider and a Democrat.

"It is what is making this race so much harder, even if (incumbents like Harman) make the system work," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School.

Said Ben Sheffner, assistant editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington: "Harman is one of the purest examples of a candidate who won based on the strength of the Democrats and Bill Clinton in 1992 but will be hurt by their relative weakness in 1994."

Seizing on the situation is Brooks, a fierce campaigner who has seen her insurgent bid bolstered by visits from GOP stalwarts and money from the National Republican Congressional Committee. Complicating matters for Harman, Brooks does not present an easy target on the issues. Like Harman, for example, she supports abortion rights, making it far harder for Harman to use that issue to peel away moderate GOP votes.

"I've had no illusions about this race," said Harman, who also faces American Independent Joseph Fields and Libertarian Jack Tyler. "I've detected the anger (of the electorate). You go to the League of Women Voters event, and there are angry people. And they are unforgiving. It's, 'If you disagree with me today it doesn't matter what else you did.' But I think constituents are fairly well-informed, and I think that people want to be constructive. And I'm running a campaign to appeal to the positive in people."

Following her election two years ago, Harman moved quickly to bulid a record she could run on. She secured a post on the House Armed Services Committee, which has served her well in gaining the near-unanimous support of the district's aerospace executives. Harman, a one-time aide to President Jimmy Carter who later worked as a corporate attorney in Washington, also used the committee position to wade into defense issues important to the district.

She teamed with Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach) to save the C-17 cargo plane, built by McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, and lobbied then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin to keep the Los Angeles Air Force Base off the military's base closure list. Earlier this month, she was at the White House as President Clinton signed a bill to reform the defense procurement system.

Her track record, however, may not count for much--especially since her Democratic base appears far less energized compared to 1992, when Clinton was at the top of the ticket, poised to take the White House.

This year, Democrat candidates are not faring so well, a fact reflected in the gubernatorial race between Gov. Pete Wilson and Treasurer Kathleen Brown. Political analysts predict that Brown, who is trailing statewide in polls, will be soundly beaten in the 36th Congressional District, where Democratic and Republican voter registration is virtually even--43% and 42%, respectively.

"I would probably give Jane Harman a slight edge, given the inroads she has made with the business community," said political analyst Sheffner. "I suspect that if people identify Jane Harman (with) saving jobs, that will help her. But it's not easy to get the message out. And you have to remember that this is a Republican district, part of which used to send Bob Dornan to Congress."

Indeed, Brooks says that Rep. Robert K. Dornan (who now represents a district based in Garden Grove) nicknamed Brooks "B-2 Sue," a takeoff on his nickname of "B-1 Bob." In her campaign, Brooks has tried to tag Harman as a carpetbagger who is partly to blame for a "defense meltdown." Harman voted for Clinton's defense budgets, which cost the district jobs, she says.

"What people in America are screaming for is, 'We don't want these insider people anymore because they are screwing up the country big-time,' " said Brooks, a former special education teacher who grew up in Long Island, N.Y.

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