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RANCHO PALOS VERDES : Legislator Mixes Pragmatism, Ideology

Regional Report

December 08, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the state Assembly takes up campaign finance reform again, Assemblyman Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes) admits that he might be singled out.

"I may have taken what is the largest single contribution to an individual Assembly candidate, except for maybe Willie Brown," said Kuykendall, who was sworn in Monday as the assemblyman in the 54th District, which includes the Palos Verdes Peninsula, San Pedro and Long Beach. Campaign reform would limit the size of contributions to state Assembly and Senate campaigns.

In the waning days of the campaign, Kuykendall accepted a $125,000 check from tobacco giant Philip Morris even though he is on record as supporting anti-smoking legislation.

It might look like a contradiction. But this is how the political system works, Kuykendall says, a sentiment echoed by former colleagues on the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council and even a few of his former opponents.

A more polished politician might be coy about it, but Kuykendall freely admits that accepting the money was a pragmatic move that may have helped him defeat incumbent Betty Karnette by 597 votes.

Now, Kuykendall, an ex-Marine and mortgage banker, is facing threats of a recall launched by Sacramento Democrats. The state party has already filed a complaint over the contribution with the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

But so far, there's been little protest beyond Sacramento Democrats. Kuykendall and his supporters dismiss the complaint as frivolous and doubt that a recall will go anywhere.

"It's something that he's always going to have to deal with. But I'd rather accept the check and be the winner with controversy than be the loser," said Republican consultant Tom Shortridge, president of Bear Republic Political Services in Redondo Beach.

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Even anti-smoking groups say they are confident Kuykendall won't be beholden to the tobacco company.

"I expect we are going to be working with him," said Paul Knepprath spokesman for the American Lung Assn. in Sacramento.

This is not the first time that pragmatism and ideology have clashed for Kuykendall. Elected to the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council as a "read-my-lips, no-new-taxes" conservative, he soon found himself justifying tax increases as a way to resolve the city's fiscal crisis.

He voted for a utility tax, which the council passed last year, and supported a parcel tax, which narrowly lost when it was put on the ballot in 1992.

"As a businessman, he had a way of saying 'Look at this problem or we'll be in bankruptcy,' " former Councilwoman Jacki Bacharach said.

Affable and frank, Kuykendall seldom displays a hard-nosed attitude people have come to expect from former Marines. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam, including a 1972 stint in which he was among the troops stopping the North Vietnamese Easter offensive. After he retired from the military, Kuykendall helped start Lockheed Mortgage Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Corp. He is now a principal in the David Buxton Financial Corp. in Torrance and works as a real estate consultant and lobbyist, including work for the Palos Verdes Medical Center and Peninsula Medical Plaza.

But in recent years, his business affairs have taken a back seat to politics. In fact, during the primary, opponent Jeffrey Earle tried to cast him as a career politician. Kuykendall made an unsuccessful run for the school board in 1987 and then the City Council in 1989 before he won a council seat in 1991. And about a year and a half after his council election, he was in the race for the state Assembly.

"Some people said he was running too soon," said former Rancho Palos Verdes Councilman Bob Ryan. "But Steve's been (active) in representative politics since he was knee-high." Although opponents have tried to use his change of view on taxes and his political aspirations against him, their attacks haven't seemed to work. One reason, colleagues on the council say, is that he has been more of a peacekeeper than a combatant during council meetings.

"He didn't bring too much of his personal agenda to the table," Bacharach said. "In fairness to Steve, I thought it was really good of him to (switch on taxes). I thought it was wrong of him to run on a platform of no new taxes. But he became a problem solver."

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Even Earle, Kuykendall's primary opponent, backed him in the general election. Kuykendall sent a last-minute mailer during the primary, noting that Earle lived with his mother and suggesting that he didn't have enough experience to succeed in Sacramento. Earle explained that he moved in to help his mother when she had heart surgery.

"I wasn't really thrilled by (the mailers)," Earle said. "But these were the typical last-minute hit pieces that come out in a campaign. I didn't harbor any longstanding resentment for the stuff that came out."

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