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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Ex-Rocker Sounds Out Political Run

Congress: GOP's Jeff Baxter, formerly of the Doobie Brothers, may challenge Rep. Brad Sherman.

May 19, 1999|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Talk about contrasts: One of the hottest congressional contests in Southern California next year could pit a pony-tailed guitar god against a balding tax lawyer.

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, the colorful former lead guitarist of 1970s arena rockers the Doobie Brothers, has retained a campaign consultant and is contemplating a GOP challenge next year for the House seat held by Rep. Brad Sherman, a Harvard-educated tax attorney whose district includes Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and Oak Park.

Although best-known for his dazzling guitar work with the Doobies and Steely Dan, Baxter has also earned a reputation around Washington in recent years as a staunch ballistic-missile defense advocate, chairing a civilian advisory board in his trademark Scottish black beret, droopy mustache and jeans. His advisory work for Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) on the issue landed both men in hot water three years ago when it was revealed that Baxter--who claimed on his resume that he had served in a similar role for NASA and Livermore Labs--acknowledged those credentials were trumped up.

Baxter, a college dropout, later dismissed the criticism, saying that he had provided some informal advice to both agencies.

"If you jam with the Eagles," he told Defense Week, " . . . Rolling Stone [would] say, 'He plays with the Eagles.' "

Dale Neugebauer, a campaign consultant working with Baxter, said the rocker's interest in politics is no novelty, but he has yet to make a final decision on whether to battle Sherman in 2000.

The 24th Congressional District includes some of the wealthiest enclaves in the greater Los Angeles area, spanning the southern San Fernando Valley, Calabasas, Malibu and eastern Ventura County.

Neugebauer said Baxter, 50, a Sherman Oaks resident who lives just outside the district boundary, has decided to refrain from doing interviews unless he formalizes his candidacy. He also refuses to detail the origins of his nickname, saying he is saving that for a book, Neugebauer said.

"He's still deciding whether to run, but from my perspective, it looks like a great opportunity for him," Neugebauer said. "He has natural appeal. The rock star image plays to the younger voters, and he was in a band that is very familiar to baby boomers."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who counts Baxter as a close friend, said he fully expects the guitarist to run.

"He's going to throw his beret in the ring," Rohrabacher said. "Jeff Baxter has been a phenomenon that has swept through Washington and is about to sweep through Southern California. He is trying to reach out to a variety of voters that Republicans have traditionally ignored."

Sherman, the Sherman Oaks Democrat who beat millionaire businessman Randy Hoffman by a wide margin to retain his seat last year, said the emergence of Baxter represented a desperate attempt by the GOP to procure a self-financed celebrity candidate. If Baxter does run, Sherman said he would spotlight an aspect of the celebrity's background less known than his guitar prowess: his unabashed support of the National Rifle Assn.

"I once saw a Doobie Brothers album, but that is it," Sherman, 44, said. "All I can say is that this is a balding CPA against a woolly rock star.

"But hairline is not the only contrast here," Sherman quickly added. "He is a strong supporter of the NRA. I could see why the NRA would want to field a candidate against me, given my background on gun-rights issues. There is a reason Jim and Sarah Brady have supported me."

Whatever the case, some political observers believe Baxter could be the GOP's best chance to capture the 24th District seat in years. His candidacy is part of a national push by Republicans to broaden their appeal by recruiting "nontraditional" popular figures such as professional wrestlers to run for office.

Before Sherman was elected in 1996, the seat was held by Democrat Anthony Beilenson for two decades, and Democrats make up the majority of registered voters in the district.

But Republicans have long maintained that they could win the seat with the right moderate candidate. Before backing Hoffman last year, the GOP placed substantial resources behind Rich Sybert, a Harvard-trained attorney and former aide to Gov. Pete Wilson. Sybert lost twice, to Beilenson in 1994 and to Sherman two years later.

"The Republicans in that district are down in the dumps," said Allan Hoffenblum, editor of the California Target Book, a political tip sheet. "They put a lot of money in the Sybert races, they backed Hoffman and they got nothing. I think they're a little burned out right now. They need a spark, and this could be it."

Although he acknowledged Baxter is a strong gun-rights advocate, Neugebauer said the former Doobie would run as a moderate, promoting his support for abortion rights, among other issues. He added that Baxter speaks excellent Spanish and would use his language skills to help lure Latino voters.

In addition to his championing of missile defense, Baxter has been an outspoken advocate for Vietnam veterans. And he has parlayed his musical skills into a running gig as house guitarist on GOP fund-raisers, cozying up to numerous politicians and benefactors, friends say.

Rohrabacher said he met Baxter at Wilson's inauguration eight years ago and quickly struck up a friendship with him after engaging in a surprisingly deep discussion on Burmese human rights.

Rohrabacher, who has since accompanied Baxter on the jew's-harp at numerous political hootenannies, summed up his attraction: The former Doobie can talk jargon with the best Pentagon wonk and still charm an audience with his rock star appeal.

"Everybody wants to meet the former guitar player on the album that meant so much to them back in the '70s when they were young," he said. "The hardest part in politics sometimes is opening doors, and all doors are open to Skunk."

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