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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ JODI WILGOREN

5 Bucks and a Vote Still Mean Something

June 09, 1998|JODI WILGOREN

Al Checchi invested $40 million in his campaign--and lost. Woody Woodworth spent $5 on a race. His candidate came out on top.

"Daily, I receive letters, mostly from Washington, D.C.," Woodworth wrote in response to a fund-raising appeal from state Treasurer Matt Fong, who last week won the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in November.

" 'Please send us $25, $50, $100 or $------.' First for one damn thing, then another, then another." Woody quoted the ubiquitous solicitations. "They get tossed into the trash. Hell, I don't got any monies for such."

In May, conventional wisdom called California 1998 the Year of the Millionaire. Today, they're counting it the year the millionaires lost. But it may be the year guys like Woody won.

Perched on California 41, close enough to Sequoia National Forest to vouch that trees make noise when they fall, Woody said he lives off $450 a month in Social Security payments. Lop $200 off the top for alimony payments. His rent in Coarsegold, a Madera County outpost of 2,700 people, is a bargain at $50 a month. But that, he explains, is only because he is so "flat-ass broke" that he camps in the same house as his ex-wife, Betty.

"We don't ask for food stamps nor welfare," he wrote. "Nobody owns US."

"The remaining [$200] is all mine," Woody bragged sarcastically. "Whoopee."

That leaves about $6.50 to spend each day ($7 for each of the 28 days in February), a little more than what lunch costs in the taxpayer-subsidized cafeterias on Capitol Hill. He sent Fong $5.

"Never heard a bad word about this guy, and on the other side of the coin, I was never really in love with Barbara Boxer," Woody wrote, adding that he has "a soft spot for anybody that worked for the state" because Woody himself spent 23 years as a civil servant.

"So, enclosed [is] my GENEROUS contribution to Matt's attempt--hope the hell he makes it," Woody wrote. "I somehow believe the guy is HONEST."

*

With Woody's $5 in his pocket, Fong beat Darrell Issa, the car-alarm magnate who walked into politics with his wallet as a steppingstone. Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the dialing-for-dollars champion, beat Al "Checkbook" Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Torrance), whose late entry into the governor's contest was made possible by her husband's deep pockets.

And the biggest winners last week were labor unions that fill their political war chest with pennies from people's paychecks--they, of course, defeated a ballot initiative that would have blocked them from doing just that.

Just when the self-financed candidate seemed in ultimate vogue, maybe the little guys are making a comeback. Sure, you need big money to play in the big leagues, where television ads are the political town halls. It takes a lot of Woodys to add up to an Issa or Checchi or Riordan or Perot, but every $5 contribution comes with a vote. The self-financed candidate only votes once.

"Everybody has been doing a Woody," Fong told a small cadre of hard-core helpers at his Sacramento campaign office on the day before the primary. "Whether it's $5 or it's $1,000, everybody has been giving their maximum effort and it's going to pay off."

Later, speaking to a Political Science 101 class at Cal State Bakersfield, he waxed more philosophical.

"This great system of democracy of ours allows everyone to contribute--Woody's contribution of $5 means more than $5,000," he told them. "Of course," he added quickly, "I won't turn down $1,000."

*

Ironically, Fong--who told his Woody story umpteen times throughout the state during the primary campaign--has also called for an end to the $1,000 limit each person is allowed to give a candidate for federal office. He says it's to even the playing field between regular guys like him and moneybags like Issa.

His November opponent, Boxer--who happens to be a millionaire but raises a huge chunk of campaign cash through mail solicitations to the Woodys of the world--says that scrapping the limits would just increase the power of the rich, diluting voices like Woody's.

"Here we are at a time where the people are saying, 'No more money in politics,' " Boxer noted the morning Fong officially became her opponent. "He's saying no limits."

Meanwhile, Boxer and Fong plan to spend at least $10 million each--and perhaps as much as $20 million--before Nov. 3. That's 2 million Woodys, or six of every 100 Californians.

In the wake of the most expensive state election in American history, Congress is yet again debating campaign finance reform this week. There's no sign of any movement, but even the millionaires are begging for change.

"Too much money. Too much heat and too little light," Harman said when asked Wednesday what went wrong in the campaign. "It was unfortunate, not just for me personally, but for the voters of California."

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