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California and the West

Rep. Frank Riggs Launches Bid for U.S. Senate

January 16, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Sensing opportunity in a candidate field that has struck notably few sparks, Rep. Frank Riggs said Thursday he will launch a late-starting bid for U.S. Senate. Riggs becomes the third GOP challenger to incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer in the June primary.

The three-term congressman from California's far north immediately sought to contrast himself with his two Republican rivals by boasting that he is "the only candidate with Washington experience who can knowledgeably discuss the issues."

And winning three tough elections in a Democratic-leaning district "proves my ability to attract crossover votes from more conservative Democrats and independent voters," Riggs said.

"That will be crucial in a general election against Boxer," the Windsor Republican said in an interview Thursday, in which he revealed his intention to run.

Riggs, who avoids a tough reelection fight by switching races, is planning a formal campaign kickoff as early as next week. He joins state Treasurer Matt Fong and Vista car alarm magnate Darrell Issa, both of whom have been campaigning for months, in a GOP field that shrank last week with the pullout of cash-strapped San Diego Mayor Susan Golding.

Riggs, 47, presents an eclectic political profile, reflecting the varied nature of his scenic district, which sprawls from the redwood forests north of San Francisco to the Oregon border.

He was first elected to Congress in 1990 in one of the year's biggest upsets, capitalizing on division within Democratic ranks--particularly among environmentalists--to squeak past Doug Boscoe, a four-term incumbent.

Riggs, a former police officer and Sonoma County sheriff's deputy, stumbled immediately after taking office by reneging on a promise to forsake a congressional pay raise. Later, he crusaded against lawmakers who bounced checks at the House bank, only to discover his own overdraft problem. He was defeated after a single term by Dan Hamburg, a Democrat who reflected the New Age sensibilities of the North Coast's old hippie havens.

But two years later, Riggs defeated Hamburg to return to Congress, and he was easily reelected in 1996 after drawing weaker-than-expected opposition.

More recently, Riggs gained widespread publicity defending Humboldt County sheriff's deputies who used pepper spray to roust nonviolent logging protesters from Riggs' Eureka office. Video footage of the incident was broadcast nationwide and Republican state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren was among those who condemned the deputies' actions.

But Riggs insisted Thursday: "I think it was the right thing to do to stand up for my employees, who were traumatized by the incident, and to stand up for local law enforcement."

Riggs' record in Congress has moved from one end of the Republican spectrum to the other, reflecting the swing nature of the 1st Congressional District, which has gone back and forth between Democrats and Republicans in four of the last five elections. He voted to hike the minimum wage and in 1991 was one of just three Republicans to oppose the Gulf War resolution. Subsequently, he became a firm supporter of Speaker Newt Gingrich and Gingrich's "Contract With America."

Riggs said Thursday his record reflects "a steady progression from someone who started with pretty moderate beliefs to someone who has become fairly conservative. That's just my own life experience, my growth, my development as a public official."

By entering the U.S. Senate contest, Riggs spares himself a difficult race against Mike Thompson, a hugely popular Democratic state senator who was widely regarded as one of the strongest candidates Democrats have fielded anywhere in the country.

Democrats were more enthusiastic than many Republicans about Riggs' decision to run for the Senate.

"As an open seat, the 1st District probably becomes one of the two or three best pickup opportunities in the country," said Dan Sallick, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.

But Riggs denied ducking a tough fight. "If I was looking for an easy race, I wouldn't be running against a multimillionaire businessman and a state treasurer, with all his ties to the banking community and Wall Street, for the opportunity to take on Barbara Boxer, who will be uncontested and sitting on her war chest gunning for the Republican nominee."

Riggs' opponents, not surprisingly, were less welcoming than the Democrats.

"Frank Riggs is getting a very late start. . . . He has no money to run a credible race," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Fong campaign, which has spent more than a year gathering endorsements and more than $1 million in contributions. Matt Cunningham, a spokesman for businessman Issa, derided Riggs as a "middle of the roader"--no compliment in a Republican primary--and a political careerist.

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