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CONGRESS 24TH DISTRICT : Campaigns Set Sights on Beilenson's Record

October 30, 1994|JOHN BUZBEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearing the end of his toughest reelection campaign, U.S. Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) is hoping to persuade voters that he's been working on the issues they care about: crime, the economy, immigration and health care.

It's not an easy message to sell. The search for solutions has been painful and difficult, he said.

"It takes some time," he said. "It takes some money. It's messy and it's complicated."

And largely ineffectual, says Rich Sybert, Beilenson's Republican challenger. Sybert says that if voters take a look at the record of Beilenson and Congress, they won't like what they see.

"If you like what's going on, if you want more of the same, then you should vote to keep the guys who are there," Sybert said.

Clearly, he expects voters to act otherwise.

Among the issues Sybert is hammering away at is Beilenson's 1993 vote for President Clinton's economic plan, which included a tax increase on high-income earners. Beilenson's 24th District, an affluent area that includes Malibu, Sherman Oaks and other parts of the San Fernando Valley, ranked ninth among the country's 435 congressional districts in the number of voters affected by the tax increase, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

"Beilenson has been a consistent supporter of the Clinton tax increase and his economic approach, which I believe is economically illiterate," Sybert said. "He has consistently voted against the interests of the district."

But Beilenson emphasizes the plan's spending cuts and the deficit reduction that resulted. Preliminary estimates by the Clinton Administration show the fiscal 1994 deficit to be $203 billion, down from $290.4 billion in 1992, and headed for a projected $167.1 billion in the next fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

The plan passed by only a one-vote margin. If Sybert had been in Congress, Beilenson said, it would not have passed and "we'd have half a trillion dollars in additional deficit that we're not going to have."

Beilenson also touts other accomplishments of Congress and the Clinton Administration: approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the National Service Act to put 20,000 young people to work in their communities, the Family Leave Act to give workers time off to help care for their families and the Brady Law to establish a waiting period on handgun purchases.

Beilenson also notes that he wrote a provision of the recently enacted crime bill that requires the federal government to reimburse state and local governments for the cost of keeping criminal illegal aliens in jail.

"For the first time ever, we took some meaningful steps to help solve the problem of illegal immigration," Beilenson said.

Through much of the campaign, Beilenson has positioned himself as an independent. In a recent debate Sybert disagreed, saying Beilenson votes with the Democratic leadership 90% of the time. Beilenson replied that many of his Republican colleagues consider him nonpartisan and fair-minded.

Sybert, 42, has been emphasizing his experience as a businessman, not a professional politician. Beilenson, 61, is in his ninth term in Congress after serving in the state Assembly.

"I've never run for office and he's never done anything else," Sybert said.

Beilenson discounts Sybert's business experience. Sybert is president of a Santa Barbara-based toy company, but from 1991-93 he was a top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson. Before that he spent 13 years working as a lawyer in a large downtown Los Angeles law firm.

The candidates have also disagreed sharply on the role of contributions from political action committees in the race. Beilenson has long refused to accept contributions from PACs, saying they're only special interests trying to buy votes.

But Sybert notes that Beilenson does accept financial support from the state and national Democratic congressional campaign fund, which takes PAC contributions.

"He takes the same money, but he does so in a way that he can present himself as not taking it," Sybert said. "I think it's fundamentally dishonest."

Sybert has taken an estimated $60,000 in contributions from PACs, including donations from three oil-related PACs and food industry-related organizations. He said his PAC contributions are a sign of confidence from the business community for his support for lowering taxes and cutting government regulations.

But Beilenson said Sybert's PAC contributions are a sign of him getting cozy with Washington special interests and lobbyists.

The bottom line? As of Sept. 30, the candidates had nearly identical war chests. Beilenson's campaign had $208,000 in the bank, while Sybert had $204,000.

Nor does the district offer either candidate a decisive advantage in voter registration. Although 50% of the district's voters are registered Democratic and 37% are Republican, strategists consider it a swing district because GOP voters are traditionally more likely than Democrats to go to the polls and support their party's candidates.

In the end, the election could hinge not on economic policies or PAC contributions, but on voters' moods about the nation and the federal government. Sybert said he's been stunned at the level of cynicism and distrust he has encountered while campaigning.

"People feel we've got a government that's fundamentally non-responsive to their needs," he said.

But Beilenson said voter discontent has been exaggerated.

"People are concerned about the government and the direction the country's taking, but I don't find the deep-seated discontent and cynicism," he said.

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