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Beilenson Won't Seek Reelection Next Year : Congress: Democrat says he's frustrated by 'mindless' political process.

November 02, 1995|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 20 years in Congress championing such liberal causes as land conservation, abortion rights and gun control, veteran Democratic Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson announced Wednesday that he does not plan to run for reelection when his term expires in 1996.

Joining the tide of Democratic lawmakers who have decided to end their careers in the U.S. Capitol, Beilenson, whose district stretches into Thousand Oaks, echoed many of their sentiments in declaring that the political process had become "ideological and often mindless," a partisan war that has limited his opportunities to effect change.

Because of the changed political climate in Washington, Beilenson said, "I can no longer make the kind of meaningful and useful contribution that is required of a responsible legislator."

As Congress has grown more conservative so has Beilenson's district, which shifted after the 1990 census from the more liberal communities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley, Malibu, Thousand Oaks and Oak Park.

Some critics accused Beilenson of deciding to leave Congress because his party no longer controlled Capitol Hill.

"He's just quitting like the rest of the Democrats because they're no longer running the show," said Karen Kurta, head of Ventura County's GOP committee. "It's like he's saying, 'Gee, if I can't be in charge, then I'm leaving and I'm taking my marbles with me.' "

Beilenson acknowledged that life in the minority for the first time has been difficult. But he said his decision stemmed more from wanting time to pursue other interests.

"I'll be 64 years old prior to the next election. I'd like to have at least several years to do something else," he said.

His retirement will open up a seat that Beilenson barely retained in a hard-fought election last year and that Democrats regard as crucial to maintaining control of the California congressional delegation. Beilenson's challenger in last year's race, Rich Sybert, has already declared his intention to run again and laid claim to the mantle of leading candidate.

"This seat will be a national priority to hold onto," said Bill Press, chairman of the California Democratic Party. "This seat could certainly determine the leadership of the California congressional delegation," which, if turned over to the GOP, would give Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich enormous backing.

A lanky, bespectacled, Harvard-educated attorney who first entered politics as a state assemblyman in 1962, Beilenson is a senior member of the powerful House Rules Committee and a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee. His gentlemanly political style, coupled with a willingness to take unconventional stands on some partisan issues, has won him praise from both sides.

"On his side of the aisle, there's probably no one I have more personal respect for," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who received a surprise ally in Beilenson in his effort to deny American citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. "On most major issues we disagree . . . [but] Tony is not the kind of guy who marches lock-step with his party. He's a free thinker."

Thousand Oaks Councilman Andy Fox said that even though Beilenson represented a portion of Ventura County that was mostly Republican, he was highly respected because of his efforts to protect the Santa Monica Mountains.

"He has served the area well. He was a gentleman with a high level of integrity. He had respect on both sides of the aisle. And he can leave office with his head held up high."

As a state senator in 1967, Beilenson wrote landmark legislation liberalizing the state's abortion laws. And in Congress in 1978, he made what he said Wednesday is his proudest achievement: creating the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, stretching from Griffith Park to Point Mugu, which he has ardently supported ever since.

In recent years, Beilenson has continued advocating environmental concerns, voting for the Clean Air Act of 1990 and opposing expanded oil drilling off the California coast. Political journals have characterized Beilenson as one of Congress' "smartest members" and "straightest arrows," a politician who has steadfastly refused to take money from special-interest groups.

But his unswerving loyalty to President Clinton drew attacks from critics, who sensed that Beilenson's seat was a high-priority target for the GOP in the Republican revolution that swept the nation last November.

An aggressive campaign by Sybert forced Beilenson to abandon some of the very civility the congressman believes is now missing in Washington in order to fight back and hold onto his job. Sybert, who financed much of his own campaign, painted Beilenson as a tax-and-spend technocrat whose more moderate stances were disingenuous positions taken only to mollify voters in the more conservative district Beilenson moved to in 1992 after reapportionment in 1990.

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