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A Lesson From the Jim Rogan Saga: All Politics Is Still Local

November 19, 2000|BOB RECTOR | Bob Rector is opinion page editor for the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County editions of The Times

This is not Jim Rogan's political obituary. He is too smart, too tenacious and too beloved by many in his party for that. We'll hear from James E. Rogan again, if not here, somewhere. Rather, it is a look at the career of a man whose star shone so brightly it dominated the local legislative landscape. And at why it faded.

It's astonishing to recall that just six years ago, Rogan was a judge in sleepy Glendale Municipal Court. The most intriguing aspect of the Rogan story, then, is how far he rose and how fast he did it.

Rogan first appeared on the political radar screens when he was elected to serve out the state Assembly term of Pat Nolan, a disgraced Republican lawmaker from Glendale who went to jail after pleading guilty to a federal racketeering charge involving influence peddling.

When reelection time came, not only did Rogan win handily but he became Assembly majority leader in Sacramento. It was a post many spend their political lives to achieve. Rogan did it in two years.

In his first run for Congress in 1996, he not only won but became part of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) inner circle and was named to the prestigious Judiciary and Commerce committees, heady stuff for a freshman legislator. So taken was the Republican party with Rogan that he was even mentioned as possible future presidential material.

By the time he was reelected to Congress two years later, he was perhaps the most visible member of the team that was chosen to impeach President Clinton, giving him national stature, exposure and a place in the history books that many politicians don't get in a lifetime.

Even though the impeachment effort failed, Rogan had become the darling of the conservative wing of the party and was being urged to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.).

Despite his successes and popularity, Rogan found himself facing a difficult if not impossible decision. Feinstein is a powerful and well-financed icon in California, and it's hard to imagine Rogan beating her, especially considering the weakened condition of the Republican party in this state. His other choice was to stay and run for reelection in his district, an area that was becoming demographically hostile as the registration balance shifted from Republican to Democratic.

For reasons either political or personal, he decided to stay in his district. So with the media declaring a national referendum on the impeachment issue, Rogan faced his opponent: Adam Schiff, a well-respected Democratic state senator whom Rogan had defeated twice before in Assembly contests. It was to become the most expensive House race in history, with nearly $10 million spent.


Rogan explained his decision to run for reelection this way:

"I enjoy my work in the House, and I am not about to give that up. I would not want my legacy to the party to be that I contributed to us losing the House--certainly not to Adam Schiff. I've run against this guy twice. I know where his glass jaws are."

But Rogan himself was vulnerable to a counterpunch. Schiff portrayed himself as a man on the ground in the district, dealing with local issues such as the expansion of Burbank Airport, the controversial Oakmont View V development and chromium 6 in the water supply. A largely invisible Rogan, meanwhile, was off trying to impeach the president and tilting at ideological windmills in Washington, D.C..

Was Rogan really out of touch with his district?

In an interview with Times editors in 1998, Rogan was pressed for his views on local issues. He cited three that had attracted his attention: preventing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency interference with controlled burns within the national forests; keeping a U.S. Marine Corps depot open in Pasadena and protecting radio frequency spectrums from auction so that they could be used for emergency services.

Hardly the stuff his constituents were discussing over backyard fences.

When pressed on Burbank Airport, he said: "My position in 1999 will be the same as it was in 1998 and as it was in 1994, when I first ran for office. I will facilitate through whatever good office I hold any type of negotiations, if those are necessary. I will not dictate a solution to the locals from Congress."

Meanwhile, neighboring congressmen Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) were becoming increasingly active in airport issues.

When Rogan eventually stuck his toe in the airport pool last year, it was in the form of a bill calling for nighttime curfews without Federal Aviation Administration approval, a bill that both sides in the dispute dismissed as ineffective.

Later, Rogan accused FAA Administrator Jane Garvey of playing partisan politics with the airport issue because she met with Schiff. The very charge seemed to suggest that Rogan was doing exactly what he accused Garvey of doing.

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