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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : Beilenson, Sybert Fight to Finish : Congress: Battle for the 24th District has embittered the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger. Both sides issue last-minute attack mailers in the hope of scoring victory.

November 06, 1994|JOHN SCHWADA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) is often described as being professorial, and his GOP challenger Richard Sybert was once Gov. Pete Wilson's top policy wonk.

But their $1-million battle for the 24th Congressional District hasn't wound up on Mt. Olympus. Instead, their election finale--played out in a national spotlight--has often looked more like mud wrestling.

The nine-term incumbent, a double Harvard graduate and a senior member of one of the House of Representatives' most powerful committees, attacked Sybert for moonlighting in the governor's office without, however, offering any proof of wrongdoing. In the meantime, Sybert, a diploma-laden conservative thinker, took liberties with facts to produce a sometimes distorted picture of Beilenson's record on matters ranging from illegal immigration to the death penalty.

That the last act in such a political drama would find the players mud-spattered and almost unrecognizable is not new. "Unfortunately, it's the rare competitive race that's won pretty," political consultant Richard Lichtenstein observed recently. "These are races where the rules are to take no prisoners, win at any cost."

In fact, as of Thursday, each camp, embittered and sullied by last-minute drive-by mailers, was threatening to sue the other for libel.

Not that the race has been conducted without any policy discussion. During the campaign, voters learned, for example, that the two foes are split over the merits of Proposition 187 and value of several Clinton Administration initiatives.

Still, when it got down to short strokes, much of the debate was over which candidate had the most credibility and integrity and who was not a typical politician.

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How the voters in the 24th District will react to the final flood of mailers and charges remains to be seen Tuesday night, after the ballots are counted.

Of paramount interest to the Beilenson camp, according to one prominent politician (who asked for anonymity), will be the reaction of GOP environmentalists and Jewish Republicans, two sizable blocs of potential swing voters who live throughout the district's affluent hillside communities such as Sherman Oaks and Encino. Beilenson is Jewish, and he is widely hailed as a founder of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Ross Perot partisans are also believed to be a key swing-vote factor in the 24th District, which includes the southwestern San Fernando Valley, the Conejo Valley and Malibu. Nearly a quarter of the vote cast in the district during the 1992 presidential race went to Perot, the Texas multimillionaire with his populist, throw-the-bums-out rhetoric.

Sybert has been assiduously courting the Perot movement, gathered under the banner of United We Stand, America clubs, trying to convince them that he's ready to shake up Congress with reforms such as term limits.

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Through the haze of their lengthy battle--which began with Sybert spending about $300,000 of his own money to win the nomination in a crowded GOP primary--some enduring themes could be found.

Among them is that Beilenson, now seeking his 10th term in office, is a foe of Proposition 187, the state measure to deny government benefits to illegal immigrants, and a stout defender of several top Clinton Administration agenda items, including its health care plan.

Proposition 187 is a "naive attempt" to deal with illegal immigration, the 62-year-old Beilenson said, even as he pointed out his own record of authoring legislation to secure first-time federal aid to reimburse the state of California for its cost of incarcerating illegals and of supporting a measure to double the size of the Border Patrol.

In 1992, the incumbent surprised his longtime liberal allies by endorsing the idea of denying automatic citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents. That highly controversial approach, Beilenson has admitted, however, has not gone anywhere in Washington.

At several candidate forums, Beilenson also has derided the media, saying they have failed to recognize that Clinton and the Democrat-controlled Congress have broken 12 years of Reagan-Bush gridlock to make progress on several national priorities.

Beilenson praised the Clinton budget deficit plan for trimming mountains of red ink built up under Republican presidencies, the Brady gun control bill and the crime bill, a measure that included funding to hire 100,000 more police and a ban on certain military-style assault weapons.

After ticking off these initiatives as accomplishments, Beilenson told a senior citizens group that he hoped his report of good tidings would "make you feel like we should continue the change we've started in Washington."

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Given the conventional wisdom that identifying with the Clinton Administration could be a political kiss of death, Beilenson's solid embrace was surprising.

Less so another campaign gambit by the incumbent.

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