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The Races of His Life

Campaign: State Sen. Tim Leslie continues to run for lieutenant governor while battling an often fatal form of cancer. 'I fully expect to have a future,' he says.

September 25, 1997|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Tim Leslie is a man of many goals, but at the moment he's focused on two:

Goal No. 1: Become California's next lieutenant governor.

Goal No. 2: Beat cancer.

For most people, overcoming an often fatal disease--multiple myeloma--would be enough of a test. Chemotherapy and an iffy prognosis can, after all, combine to strain one's soul.

But Leslie--a Republican who represents the northeastern quarter of the state--has decided that cancer will not eclipse his plans.

"I fully expect to have a future, and I want to spend that future as lieutenant governor," said Leslie, 55, a deeply religious conservative. "Yes, I have this disease, and no, it's not fun. But I'm dealing with it and I don't see any reason to quit."

So he campaigns on, with catnaps and doctor visits about his only concessions to the cancer. There will be some hospital time later, but for now he is fully afoot, with disease-fighting drugs dripping into his veins from a dispenser he wears on his hip.

And although no politician would ever wish for cancer, it has brought some unexpectedly pleasant rewards. In a corner of Leslie's Capitol office, for example, a mound of encouraging mail grows daily.

"We know you'll whip this!" cheered one sympathizer. Others have shared miracle cures, recommending everything from Chinese herbs to shark cartilage, meditation and a Peruvian vine called cat's claw.

Inside the normally cynical Legislature, the response has been equally warm. Although Democrats have yet to grant him any sympathy votes, colleagues have been liberal with hugs and words of support. One hairless assemblyman, Democrat Dick Floyd of Wilmington, even agreed to admit Leslie to the "bald men's caucus" should his hair fall out. (So far, it hasn't.)

Aside from its personal dimension, Leslie's mission raises questions about voters' willingness to support candidates whose health may be in doubt. When the late Paul Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts, ran for president in 1992, he tried to ease worries about his bout with lymphoma by airing ads showing him swimming the butterfly.

"We were trying to demonstrate that this was a man who had beat cancer and was vigorous and in good health," recalled Dennis Kanin, Tsongas' campaign manager. Public qualms are "undoubtedly something [Leslie] will have to deal with."

Leslie's campaign strategists know this, and have already come up with a positive spin. As they see it, the senator will beat myeloma and create an appealing metaphor in the process: Tim Leslie--a gutsy guy who never gives up. Or something like that.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said voters' reactions to that pitch will depend on how Leslie "looks and acts come April or May, when most people start paying attention to the race."

"If he can prove through his actions that he climbed this mountain and is a better man for it, then the public may respond," DiCamillo said.

Round-faced and bespectacled, Leslie is the Senate's perennial "nice guy," ever cheerful in a place that abounds with grouches and oversized egos. When constituents address him as "Senator Leslie," he chuckles and quips, "The Honorable Tim will be fine."

Colleagues say the sunny demeanor masks a killer political drive: "The guy's a bulldog," said Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco). "If you're against a bill of his, you'd better keep trying to kill it because he keeps digging up votes until the bitter end."

Indeed, Leslie has better luck than many conservatives at maneuvering his proposals through a house controlled by Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) calls him "a finesser. He's able to talk to the other side better than some of us [Republicans] can."

One member of "the other side," the liberal Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), credits Leslie's pragmatism.

"When he first arrived here, he was one of these dogmatic Christian Boy Scout types who had all the truth and thought everybody else was a heretic," said Vasconcellos, a friend of Leslie's. "But he let go of that. He became open and vulnerable to other people and points of view."

That is not to say Leslie has shed his conservative skin--or the religious values that drive his politics. He is an ardent foe of gambling and the California Lottery and wants to amend the state Constitution to require that minors get parental permission before obtaining an abortion.

Earlier in his career, he opposed efforts to protect gays from employment discrimination, saying homosexuals had a lifestyle that was "not desirable or healthy."

This year, Leslie captured headlines with a bill imposing tough curbs on young drivers. Under the legislation, teenagers would face new limits on their ability to carry underage passengers and drive late at night. The bill is awaiting Gov. Pete Wilson's signature.

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