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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS : CALIFORNIA
ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE

Fong Makes a Few Missteps in the GOP Political Dance

October 29, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Republican U.S. Senate nominee Matt Fong found out this week how painful it can be to perform an intricate electoral dance and step on both of your own feet.

First came the news that Fong had donated $50,000 to a conservative Orange County-based religious coalition, which angered gay Republicans because the group Fong gave to has strongly opposed gay rights.

Then, to talk the gay Republicans out of rescinding their endorsement, Fong signed a letter agreeing to support their legislative demands, which angered the state's religious Republicans.

By Wednesday, both the party's socially liberal and socially conservative wings were mad at Fong's do-si-do.

"Our phones have been ringing off the hook about this," said the Christian Coalition's executive director, David Spady. "It's very much a disappointment."

On that, at least, the gay Republicans could agree.

"I can't tell you how shocked we all are at what has occurred here," said Frank Ricchiazzi, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans' political action committee.

The dust-up was not the sort of diversion needed by Fong, who already is battling a Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has more money and, lately, momentum. Boxer has seized on the donation, using it to characterize Fong as an extremist--which is exactly how Fong has been trying to characterize her.

It is indicative, however, of the careful balance that Republican candidates in California have to strike in trying to win the support of the strongly conservative primary voters and the more moderate voters who dominate the general election.

In some cases, candidates can appeal for compromise. But there is little room for compromise when the combatants are gay Republicans and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition.

Though it went unreported at the time, Fong in March donated $50,000 to the coalition, ostensibly to help with a survey regarding gay marriage and domestic partnerships. Shortly thereafter, Sheldon defended Fong against his primary opponent, Darrell Issa.

In August, Fong met with the gay Republicans, who won his approval of most of their legislative agenda. Fong told them at the time that he would support a ban on gay marriages, but, Ricchiazzi said, endorsed other positions including a series of bills outlawing discrimination against gays in employment and housing, supporting a gay ambassadorial nominee and working with the group on AIDS research funding.

Since those positions are moderate for a Republican, the Log Cabin Republicans were outraged when the San Francisco Examiner reported the donation Sunday.

Ricchiazzi said the group considered pulling its endorsement of Fong, but instead demanded that Fong reiterate his August statements in writing. The group was particularly incensed because the donation to Sheldon's group came from money Fong had left over from his 1994 state treasurer's race. And among the donors to that race, to the tune of $8,000, were the Log Cabin Republicans.

Politically, the impact of their anger may be far less than that of the Christian Coalition and its related groups. While the Log Cabin Republicans number about 1,000 in California, the Christian Coalition sent out 4 million voter guides through 5,000 churches--all with Fong on the cover.

Spady, the group's executive director, said Fong's moves have been the talk of Christian talk radio and other media, in addition to lighting up the Christian Coalition's phone lines.

"If he's going to anger a constituency, angering the Christian community is probably not a good step at this point," Spady said.

Times staff writers Tony Perry and Amy Pyle contributed to this story.

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