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Beilenson Edges Past GOP's Sybert

November 09, 1994|JOHN SCHWADA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), a fixture on the Southern California political scene for 30 years, held a small lead over Republican Richard Sybert, a former top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson, in the hotly contested 24th Congressional District.

The veteran Beilenson, 62, seeking his 10th term in office, had been heavily besieged by the 42-year-old Sybert, a policy wonk and tenacious competitor who spent more than $1 million on his race to unseat the incumbent.

The Beilenson-Sybert race has been one of the most closely watched congressional contests in the nation ever since Sybert, the former director of Wilson's Office of Planning and Research, moved into the district in October, 1993, and promptly sank a considerable amount of his own wealth into his campaign to unseat one of the House of Representatives' top leaders. Beilenson is a senior member of the powerful Rules Committee.

The race produced big-ticket spending. When all the bills are counted, the combined tab will be $1.2 million or better, with Sybert spending about two-thirds of this amount.

Sybert, an attorney and businessman, loaned more than $400,000 of his own money to his campaign, and he got numerous GOP heavyweights such as U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) to raise money for him at events held throughout the district, from a tony Studio City restaurant to a Lake Sherwood estate.

During the campaign, Beilenson, who has served continuously as a lawmaker in one capacity or another since 1963, tried to portray Sybert as "just another typical politician" who accepts "dirty" political action committee contributions. Sybert painted the incumbent as a liberal, career politician. "I have never run for office before in my life, and my opponent has done nothing else," Sybert was fond of saying.

Still, the campaign did reveal some sharp policy differences.

Sybert supported Proposition 187, the measure to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants, and Beilenson did not.

Proposition 187 would create a litigation nightmare and prove to be unconstitutional in the end, Beilenson maintained, while Sybert said the controversial measure offered Californians their best chance yet for challenging overly liberal government policies and court decisions that extend benefits to illegal immigrants.

Escalating the immigration debate, Sybert also called for reducing the number of legal immigrants allowed annually into the United States and having U.S. soldiers double as border patrol agents.

Beilenson touted his support for a measure to double the size of the nation's border patrol and his authorship of another measure--also winning congressional approval--to require the federal government to partially reimburse California for the cost of imprisoning illegal immigrants.

During a half-dozen debates, Beilenson emerged as an almost unequivocal supporter of the Clinton Adminstration. His pose defied the conventional wisdom that Democratic incumbents should distance themselves from a President whose political fortunes have been on the wane.

After years of Reagan-Bush inertia on key domestic policy concerns, Clinton and the Democrat-controlled Congress have made tremendous progress by passing a crime bill, a national gun-control law, a family leave plan and a meaningful deficit-reduction program, Beilenson boasted.

"It's like the difference between night and day," Beilenson told an audience in the final days of the campaign as he described the burst of domestic policy initiatives approved by Congress since Clinton entered the White House.

But for Sybert, the Clinton initiatives spelled bad news. The crime bill is loaded with expensive and failed social programs while the deficit-reduction plan amounts to a huge tax hike that has hit Californians very hard, Sybert contended.

Meanwhile, Beilenson fired some of his nastiest and biggest salvos when he repeatedly accused Sybert of compromising his integrity by accepting more than $60,000 in campaign contributions from special-interest groups, all the while reminding voters of his own pledge never to take such money.

This same Beilenson tactic was widely credited with helping the incumbent defeat his 1992 Republican challenger, Tom McClintock.

Sybert also failed the character test, Beilenson argued, when he ran a lucrative private legal practice on the side while he worked at his $98,000-a-year job as a director of the governor's Office of Planning and Research. In one year, Sybert earned $140,000 in legal fees by moonlighting, Beilenson noted, citing financial disclosure records.

At the very least, Beilenson maintained, California taxpayers deserved to have Sybert giving his state job his undivided attention. But his mailers also suggested--without foundation--that Sybert's moonlighting had involved a "conflict of interest" between his duties as a top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson and his work for his private legal clients.

Sybert retorted by producing a letter from Wilson praising Sybert's work ethic and an opinion from the state's top ethics officer--sought by Sybert before he began moonlighting--reiterating that outside work was not illegal per se.

In the mudslinging battle, Sybert had his own ammunition, including remarks Beilenson had once made in 1989 on his indifference to California's problems and statements he had made about his strong allegiance to the House speaker, and his preference that the budget be balanced by raising taxes, not by cutting federal programs.

Sybert contended that such remarks betrayed the fact that Beilenson--after 18 years in Congress--has lost touch with his constituents and the world outside the Beltway.

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