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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE
SKELTON

Harman's Hopes Fall Through the Gender Gap

June 01, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

Rep. Jane Harman hunted all over California this past weekend for the elusive gender gap. There was no evidence that she found it--at least any gender gap big enough to engulf her male opponents in Tuesday's election.

From Day 1 of her campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, the main premise of Harman's candidacy has been that she could rally women voters.

After all, gubernatorial nominees Kathleen Brown and Dianne Feinstein had rallied women before her. An estimated 56% of Democratic voters are women. And if most backed Harman, that would leave Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and businessman Al Checchi scrambling for loose change. If they didn't, her candidacy was doomed.

Her candidacy is doomed, virtually all polls indicate. The latest Times poll, taken about two weeks ago, showed Davis leading Harman by 6 percentage points among women likely to vote. Among men, Davis held a massive 21-point lead.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 2, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Party affiliation: The Capitol Journal column in Monday's Times incorrectly listed the party affiliation of political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. She is registered to vote as "declined to state" and describes herself as nonpartisan.

No candidate wants to believe doomsday polls, so Harman flew off on a small plane Saturday to rally women. She was accompanied by some women lawmakers and Ellen Malcolm, founder of Emily's List, which already this year has contributed $3.5 million to women candidates.

"It's going to be the gender gap of women that is going to empower women and empower the first woman governor of California," Malcolm proclaimed at Harman's first rally, outside her headquarters in Westchester.

But, in truth, women seem on the verge of empowering a male nominee. And Harman wasn't rallying much of anybody Saturday, neither women nor men.

*

The Westchester rally drew maybe 50 supporters. In Santa Barbara, at a children's park, a mere 15 people showed up. There wasn't even a local newspaper reporter.

Bad timing, we were told. A new beach park was opening at that very hour and generating a lot of excitement. OK, but later in San Jose, only 30 people bothered to hear Harman at a Latino youth center. And in Sacramento, just 30 wandered into a women's center.

Clearly, these pathetically attended "rallies" were signs of weak grass-roots support.

And you have to ask, how did it come to this for somebody who announced her candidacy with so much promise Feb. 4? By mid-March, she had become the front-runner. But in April, she began to plunge and only recently has she started to rebound.

First, the gender thing:

"There's a misconception that we women are sheep," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst at Claremont Graduate University.

"This year, there are no gender-specific rights being threatened. Why should we mobilize as a gender? . . . Jane Harman nurtured the perception that she had no greater reason to run than 'I am a woman, I am a Democrat, I have enough money.' She turned out to look a lot more like Kathleen Brown than Dianne Feinstein."

Ouch! But Harman's message--"California know-how"--indeed has been vague at times.

And although she has been hammering on issues historically of special concern to women--gun control, health care, abortion rights, education--so have the male candidates. "Issue coalitions now probably are more attractive than gender coalitions," says Barbara O'Connor, the head of political studies at Cal State Sacramento.

This definitely is not "the year of the woman." That was 1992, when California elected its first two women U.S. senators. "That's been done," O'Connor continues. "People now are asking, 'What's the difference?' "

O'Connor and Jeffe, incidentally, are hard-core Democrats.

At the Santa Barbara mini-rally, Janice Rocco, president of the L.A. National Organization for Women, told me Harman should have pounded away at Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren's antiabortion views. "Showed she was a leader on the issue," Rocco asserted. "Then women would be rushing to the polls to vote for her."

*

Maybe. But Harman had two bigger problems:

* A late, fumbling start. The Torrance congresswoman never before had run statewide and needed to sprint out of the starting blocks. Instead, she hesitated, acquiring a somewhat undeserved reputation for avoiding specifics.

* A $6-million barrage of Checchi attack ads distorting her record. These lethal bullets ultimately ricocheted back on Checchi. But many pols criticize Harman for not returning fire. She told me, "I thought that taking the high road would resonate with voters." Anyway, contended strategist Bill Carrick, she could not have matched the super-rich Checchi's air arsenal.

Harman could be an effective governor. She's a quick study, tough-minded, a listener and a centrist who's a natural at forging coalitions. But, while women watched, she got mugged by some guy on her way to Sacramento.

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