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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / 28TH
ASSEMBLY DISTRICT

Hitler Reference Dogs Capitol 'Cowboy'

GOP incumbent reportedly mentioned Nazi in context of overcoming adversity. He accuses Democratic foe of distortion.

October 11, 1998|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — During his four-year career as an assemblyman, Peter Frusetta has become known as the Capitol's cowboy, a Republican rancher-turned-politician who exudes a folksy charm.

But as he campaigns for a third term in the Statehouse, his political foes say Frusetta isn't so charming anymore.

Last month, he allegedly called a constituent a "bitch" after she declined to accept a piece of campaign literature.

Frusetta denied it, saying he actually called the woman a "witch." She is demanding an apology, but another remark may have landed the assemblyman in a bigger fix.

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League began investigating a speech to a group of Salinas schoolchildren in which Frusetta reportedly referred to Adolf Hitler while discussing how people struggle to overcome adversity.

"If the allegations are correct, then we are deeply concerned and disturbed," said Barbara Bergen, the league's regional director. "Any invocation of this tyrant as an example of someone who overcame adversity to achieve success would be entirely inappropriate."

Aides to Frusetta, 66, say his comments have been wildly distorted by a Democratic opponent playing dirty politics. They say there were no complaints when he made the speech in November. In fact, he got a thank-you letter from the school's principal.

Frusetta was unavailable for an interview, but his chief of staff, Devin Brown, said: "This is gutter-ball politics at its worst. These are the tactics of a desperate person who will do or say anything to get in this race."

Frusetta's opponent, Salinas Mayor Alan Styles, said the assemblyman "should admit he made an error in judgment in bringing up Hitler to schoolchildren and apologize." Styles also denied that he is using the episode as a campaign tactic.

But he has clearly not hesitated to publicize the flap. Last week, he invited a group of Vietnam and World War II veterans to a news conference to join him in denouncing the Hitler reference.

Moreover, it's no secret that Democrats--whose party dominates the district in voter registration--desperately want to wrest the seat out of Republican hands. In 1994, Frusetta won by just 389 votes. Two years later, the margin had widened but was still only 1,761 votes.

"It is a seat that is very important to us and, by every measure, should be ours," said Darry Sragow, the political strategist overseeing Assembly races for the Democrats. Latest reports showed Styles lagging well behind the incumbent in fund-raising.

Frusetta's comments are only the latest twist in the fight over the 28th District, which includes parts of Monterey and San Benito counties and the southern edge of San Jose.

Also at issue has been Frusetta's refusal to debate his foe because of a Styles pamphlet that bears a picture of a goofy, grinning horse and the statement, "It's time to stop horsing around." It accuses Frusetta of ducking votes on a variety of issues.

Brown called the pamphlet "offensive to Peter Frusetta and his horse. . . . Until [Styles] apologizes for his reckless, dirty campaign, we won't consider debating him."

Styles said he has apologized publicly to the horse but will not do the same for Frusetta: "This is all a bunch of stalling. He's doing this to avoid debating the issues."

Controversy over the speech heated up last week when a complaint about it reached the Anti-Defamation League's office in San Francisco. Bergen said she learned of the episode from a league board member in the Salinas area who had talked with a teacher at the school.

"Right now, we're still gathering facts," Bergen said, adding that the league mailed Frusetta a letter Friday seeking his version of events.

The speech was delivered to an assembly of students, teachers and administrators at Gavilan View Middle School. The principal, Tom Dietrich, declined to discuss the incident in depth, saying the school did not want to "get dragged into the middle of a political thing."

He confirmed that Hitler was mentioned by Frusetta and said, "The context was basically about overcoming personal obstacles and difficulties."

In his letter to Frusetta, Dietrich thanked the assemblyman for speaking, saying his appearance showed students that "our government officials do deeply care about the individuals they represent."

In a prepared statement, Frusetta said he mentioned Hitler as "an evil man who used his power in an evil way. . . . To say that I made a speech at an elementary school that proclaimed Adolf Hitler as a hero saddens and offends me greatly."

The alleged insult of a constituent occurred in mid-September at a Chamber of Commerce event in Gilroy. Judy Cavazos said Frusetta called an acquaintance of hers a "bitch" after the woman twice refused to accept a baseball card with his picture on it.

"This has nothing to do with politics--I don't know him or his opponent," said Cavazos, who works for a construction company. "This has to do with common courtesy and how you treat people."

The woman, who owns a ceramics business in Morgan Hill and did not want her name used, said Frusetta told her he had called her "a witch" instead of "a bitch."

"Either way, it wasn't very nice," the woman said. She said that Frusetta called her after she asked for an apology but that he did not offer one, hanging up on her instead.

Brown was not at the event, but he defended his boss. "I don't know if she was rude. I don't know if she was discourteous to him," he said. "But we are all human beings. We all have feelings."

A father of four and grandfather of eight, Frusetta owns a sprawling cattle, oat and barley ranch near the town of Tres Pinos. His supporters bill him as the consummate citizen-politician, a common-sense assemblyman invariably clad in cowboy hats and neckerchiefs.

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