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An Unusually Real Choice for Congress

September 12, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

SANTA BARBARA — There's something to envy these days in Santa Barbara and on up the coast. And it's not just the soft climate, the uncrowded beaches, the small towns and clean air.

In deciding on a congressional representative, voters are being offered a real choice--not an echo, not pastels, not merely a dime's worth of difference, to paraphrase some famous pols from the past.

Republican Rep. Andrea Seastrand, 55, is a hard-right conservative who favors a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion, supports assault weapons, advocates denying public services to illegal immigrants, objects to gays in the military and wants to spend tax money to help children attend private schools.

University professor Walter Capps, 62, is a liberal Democrat who favors abortion rights, gun control and gay rights. He opposes the death penalty, Proposition 187 and private school vouchers.

But Capps' main pitch is that he's not Andrea Seastrand and--even more importantly--he's not a political "clone" of Speaker Newt Gingrich.

And outside the 22nd Congressional District, Gingrich is what this election is all about. It's why the race has attracted national attention and big money, especially to finance anti-Seastrand/Gingrich attack ads. For it's difficult to see how Democrats can recapture the House unless they oust Seastrand.

Democrats need to pick up 20 seats to reclaim control. Seastrand was one of 73 new GOP House members elected in 1994 and is considered vulnerable because she's a rookie, she's presumably too conservative for the moderate district, and she's too close to the unpopular Gingrich.

"They've made him look like the Grinch who stole Christmas," she complains.


The contest is a replay of 1994, when then-Assemblywoman Seastrand edged political novice Capps by just 1,563 votes, a victory margin of less than 1%. That was a big Republican year. Now the cycle has turned, and it's looking like a good year for Democrats.

But the old thesis that all politics is local usually fits this district, which stretches 150 miles from Paso Robles farms down Carpinteria's beaches. No Democrat has been elected to Congress from the region in 52 years.

Seastrand is an articulate, energetic campaigner who leaves Washington's Dulles airport every Thursday evening, waits for a commuter flight at LAX and arrives at her Shell Beach home about 1 a.m. Then she reverses the route on Monday. "People know I'll be at every parade," she says.

As for being too right-wing, she points out that the district's voters agree with her on immigration, welfare, the death penalty and taxes.

"She's a Gingrich Republican," reiterates Capps, a soft-spoken lecturer who only recently returned to the campaign trail after spending three months in a wheelchair.

His car was hit head-on last May by a drunken driver, severely breaking an arm and a leg, and leaving a scar across the top of his skull. It made him an even stronger supporter of preserving Medicare benefits, which he contends Gingrich and Seastrand want to reduce.

Capps concedes he probably benefited politically from the near-fatal accident, which was big news locally.


Seastrand gained notoriety of a different sort two years ago, and it's still nagging her. Addressing a Grace Bible Church, the devout Catholic implied that God had been punishing California for its wickedness.

She cited God's promise to Solomon in Chronicles 2 that people who "turn from their wicked ways, then will I . . . forgive their sin and heal their land." She did not quote God's further vow to inflict "adversity" on those who "forsake" Him.

But she did say: "California has been given so many signs--floods, drought, fires, earthquakes, lifting mountains two feet high in Northridge. . . . And yet [people] turn from His ways. . . . We probably have the most adulterers living here in California, child pornographers and molesters . . . and divorce, family breakups, all of that evil."

Seastrand says she was trying to talk the parishioners into getting active politically, and clearly she was. She also told them, "We as Christians have been hoodwinked into thinking that there is a separation of church and state."

But in the end, this election may be won or lost with TV ads, as so many are. The AFL-CIO is talking about spending $900,000 to attack Seastrand. The Sierra Club, which calls the congresswoman an "eco-thug," unveiled new ads Wednesday. Other liberal interest groups also smell blood.

Not only is there more than a dime's worth of difference between these candidates, there also is a big dissimilarity in TV dollars. Capps is expected to win that ad contest by 2 to 1.

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