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Renegade GOP Candidate Has Beaten Bigger Odds

December 04, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Every candidate has a basic stump speech, but I'd never heard one quite like Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro's:

His father's family migrated to California from Italy, his mother's from East Texas during the Dust Bowl--"took them seven years, working on odd jobs and fixing the truck to get another 200 miles."

He's a consistent conservative--pro-gun, pro-farm, antiabortion rights, anti-gay "special rights." He's for stiff prison sentences; his "biggest bill" substantially increased penalties for use of a gun in violent crime. He hates taxes; "eliminate the IRS and go to a flat tax." Yes, he supported Steve Forbes for president.

Then--and here's the unique part--there's "the accident." Bordonaro inserts the story almost as an aside into the litany about "Who I am." The subject is almost unavoidable, inasmuch as he's sitting alongside the lectern in an electric wheelchair, obviously a quadriplegic with paralyzed legs and only limited use of his arms. He pauses and the audience listens up.

"The day before my first midterm at Cal Poly, I was in my auto accident," the 38-year-old 6-footer says. "I was thrown into a life confined to a wheelchair. I was six months in a hospital. . . ."

Bordonaro generally skips past the details: He was a passenger reading a textbook in a small pickup heading up the Cuesta Grade on U.S. 101, just north of San Luis Obispo. They went around a corner and slammed into a stalled semi. The driver lost a kneecap. Bordonaro's head hit the dash and he became a "c4, c5 quad"--neck broken between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae.

In the speech, the candidate quickly satisfies the curious, then jumps to the point: "But because of my faith and my family and my perseverance and a lot of good people, I was able to get a hold of myself and get on with my life, to move forward. And that has a lot to do with who I am.

"When I decide to do something, I do it. The worst thing you can do is tell me I can't do something. I'm a little bit headstrong. I've got resolve and determination."


That message is particularly apropos now that Assemblyman Tom J. Bordonaro Jr. of Paso Robles is running for the congressional seat vacated by the death of Rep. Walter Capps (D-Santa Barbara). Some national GOP leaders--including House Speaker Newt Gingrich--would rather he not be doing this. It messes things up for Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos), the wealthy vintner and tire manufacturing heir.

Firestone was persuaded by Gingrich and other Republican VIPs to abandon his lieutenant governor's race and run for Congress. Their thinking was that Firestone's political moderation best fits the district, which covers San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties (except Carpinteria). The Democratic candidate is the late congressman's widow, Lois Capps.

There's an open primary Jan. 13. If no candidate gets 50% of the vote, the top finisher from each party will compete in a runoff March 10.

Bordonaro thinks he has the numbers: He already represents 60% of the congressional district in the Assembly; Firestone, only 40%. Moreover, his part of the district--the north--is more conservative than Firestone's and that will help him in the primary.

"I don't believe somebody inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway ought to be able to reach into this district and anoint a candidate," he said Tuesday to the Cal Poly Young Republicans, who endorsed him.

And later as he sat dialing for scarce dollars at his spartan campaign headquarters in Paso Robles, the candidate emphatically promised a contributor: "No, no, no, no--I'm not getting out of this race. Absolutely not."


Over soup and salad--displaying his mastery of fingers he says really don't work--Bordonaro told me he sees the primary as "a referendum on the direction of the Republican Party--and the runoff as a mandate on the Clinton administration."

But his main message?

"You can still do it in this country. It doesn't matter even if you're disabled, or a man or a woman or black or white. The opportunities are there if you have the courage to reach out and take them. But we've gotten away from inspiring people and that's what we have to get back to. We've been driving people's fears. . . .

"I've learned how strong the human spirit is. It can do absolutely amazing things. . . . Five minutes before that accident, I would have said, you know, 'If I end up being disabled, just kill me.' I was in rodeo, water skiing, very active. Five minutes after that wreck, it was 'I just want to hang on.' I learned how precious life is."

Hope, opportunity, perseverance--a worthwhile message, regardless of anybody's ideology or any election outcome. In a Bordonaro stump speech, moreover, there's no question of its sincerity.

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