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Running Against the Tide

To win a House seat, O.C. Democrat Sally Alexander, 82, needs to beat Dana Rohrabacher in a Republican district. But the surfing grandma has energy to spare.

October 22, 1996

Sally Alexander, 82, is up before it gets light. She always is, but this is going to be a particularly busy day.

Let's see: Meet newspaper reporter at 7:15, then go meet President Clinton. Rendezvous with German TV news crew. Meet Associated Press photographer and pose for pictures. Address senior citizens. Start volunteers handing out leaflets in Huntington Harbour. Pose with Boogie board down by the pier.

Alexander, a great-grandmother, is the oldest candidate for the House of Representatives this year. And though, she says, she's running mainly because no other Democrat would, she's taking it seriously.

If nothing else, she says, she can talk about the things she feels are threatened by Republicans--Medicare and the environment and job security. If she can embarrass the four-term incumbent, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), that would be reward enough for a lifelong, traditional Democrat, she says.

Because of Alexander's age, "she's been getting terrific publicity," says her husband and campaign manager, Chauncey Alexander, who's 80.

There have been older members of Congress. The oldest in the House was Charles Manly Stedman of North Carolina, who died in office in 1930 at age 89. Strom Thurmond, also of North Carolina, is the oldest senator of record. He'll be 94 on Dec. 5.

Alexander has not been shy about her age. One of her campaign buttons states, "If you're lucky, you'll grow old, too." The media coverage that has resulted is going to affect independent voters, her husband says.

Conventional wisdom casts Rohrabacher as unbeatable in his 45th District. It has nearly 20% more Republicans than Democrats. Rohrabacher drew 69% of the vote last election.

But Chauncey Alexander figures conventional wisdom is obsolete. Nowadays about 12% of the district's voters are independent voters. Get half the independent votes, he figures, and the Democrat wins.

"In your heart of hearts, you wish the underdog would win sometimes," says Santa Ana political consultant Dan Wooldridge, "but the reality is, an election is a test of money and voter registration. Conventional wisdom has always been my best friend.

"What makes her different from previous Democratic opponents is she's a feisty candidate willing to go up against Rohrabacher face-to-face."

So far, that hasn't happened. In March, Rohrabacher, 48, a surfer, quipped to the Wall Street Journal that "I usually challenge my opponent to a debate and a surfing contest, but I think I'll have to refrain from the latter."

Alexander responded by challenging Rohrabacher to a surfing contest.

"Everything in me still works, and I mean everything," she says. She still rides a bodyboard, a sort of short, soft surfboard, in the Huntington Beach surf. But Rohrabacher didn't show up for her surfing challenge.

Rohrabacher, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed about the current campaign and has forbidden his staff to discuss it with The Times.

"He pretty much ignores us," Alexander says. At a televised debate among local candidates, Rohrabacher "talked more about Clinton than about me," she says.

So she campaigns and hopes that even if she is defeated, her campaign will have helped generate votes for President Clinton.

Last Thursday, the day she was to meet Clinton at his rally in Santa Ana, her car was in the garage for repairs. Heading to the rally in a loaner, Chauncey Alexander is driving as he usually does--like a New York cabby. "It's got some pep," he says.

Sally Alexander, in her dark blue campaigning suit and a golf cap she got at the Democratic National Convention, leans back from the passenger seat to answer questions.

Seven years after she was born, Alexander's family moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, then to Palmdale, where her father, Roger Coffin, a traveling macaroni salesman, switched to chicken ranching and fruit growing.

By high school, she was a politician, running for office with the slogan "Rest in peace with Coffin at the helm." She married, and eventually divorced, a man destined to be an automotive executive and had two daughters.

Sherry Curtis, one of her daughters, remembers at age 4 1/2 walking the block with her mother during World War II blackouts as a Civil Defense worker.

And she recalls seeing her mother constantly working on community projects where they lived. "I remember her stopping a golf course being built next to our school in Los Angeles. Then she worked to get a drag strip built in Pomona to get the kids off the streets."

Says Sandy Hester, the other of Alexander's daughters: "I remember they opened a park and my mother was up there as one of the people who'd made it happen. I remember thinking, 'Wow, Mom helped with this!' She was always engaged in the world around her. It's a character trait."

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