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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Lois Capps Shows a Winning Style on Campaign Trail

January 15, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SANTA BARBARA — She's a nurse, a teacher, a mom and a widow. And she's one heck of a political candidate.

She's human drama, as well. That's an element often missing in today's robotic politics, where candidates read polls and paint by the numbers, mouthing the equivalent of elevator music.

Lois Capps now seems destined to also become a member of Congress, replacing her late husband, who died of a heart attack Oct. 28 while trying to catch a cab at Washington's Dulles Airport.

Lois and Walter Capps (D-Santa Barbara) were partners in politics as well as marriage. She campaigned for him during his long recovery from a near-fatal auto accident in 1996. He brought home his work from Capitol Hill and they discussed it nightly. She accompanied him back home to the congressional district almost every weekend.

But watch her stump for votes and you'll quickly understand why people here--pols, friends and family--say Lois is a much better campaigner than Walter. A university professor, Walter Capps was brilliant, likable and upbeat, but often stiff--too professorial.

Lois Capps is a natural, perhaps because she's the daughter of a Lutheran minister and also was herself a school nurse for 20 years. She's outgoing and connects easily with people, listening like a nurse being told where it hurts and sympathetically, cheerfully suggesting a remedy. She has heard two or three generations of local families' problems, having coordinated a program to help teenage mothers keep their babies and finish high school.

She's a tall, slim, athletic, blue-eyed, blond 60-year-old--telegenic and articulate. A political consultant's dream.

*

On Tuesday, Capps won 45% of the vote in a special election primary. This was an "open" primary, as all California special elections have been for years. Every candidate is listed on the same ballot. The highest vote-getter from each party advances to a runoff, unless one candidate receives 50%.

In June, California moves to an open primary system (without the 50% feature) for regular elections. So this special election in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties was instructive. The reigning theory has been that open primaries would produce more centrist nominees. Well, think again! That theory was debunked, at least for this field of candidates.

Given their choice between a moderate Republican and a conservative Republican, voters rejected the guy who called himself "a passionate centrist" and chose the bedrock conservative. Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro (R-Paso Robles) beat out Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) by 29.1% to 24.6% for the March 10 runoff spot.

Bordonaro was outspent 4 to 1, but the voter numbers were on his side. He represented two-thirds of the district's Republicans in the Assembly. Moreover--unlike Firestone--he offered GOP voters a focused, conservative message. It wasn't elevator music.

Yet, his victory seems hollow. Short of Capps stumbling into a nasty hole, it's hard to visualize her losing a race that she starts out leading by 45%-29%--with the finish line at 50%.

*

Lois Capps is a liberal. But in manner and speech, she's no wild-eyed lefty who frightens centrists.

If indeed the federal government shows a surplus, she thinks more money should be spent on education. She'd also support "targeted" tax cuts.

She believes HMOs have become too powerful and greedy and that doctors should regain control of health care from accountants.

She's strongly in favor of abortion rights--even the right to have a so-called partial birth abortion. "To think that we should intrude political machinations into this excruciating experience is an abomination," she says.

She has signed a "pledge" not to serve more than three terms, but opposes mandatory term limits. "It takes away from the privilege of voters," she says. Signing the pledge was "not a hard thing for me because of my age."

For the next six years, however, Capps says she feels "compelled" to continue her husband's "legacy."

On election day, she spent two hours on the UC Santa Barbara campus where her husband had taught, corralling students with a big smile and a handshake. "Hi, I'm Lois Capps. I'm running for Congress. I'd love to have your vote. You know where to vote?"

Later, she stood on a nearby street corner, waving and shouting to students on bicycles like some high school girl flagging down autos for the club carwash.

At a victory party Tuesday night, she told 400 cheering supporters: "Walter's here in spirit. The things he believed in, we won't let them die. We will carry on."

It's tough to beat a widow--especially one who's a natural campaigner.

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