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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / 44th ASSEMBLY DISTRICT

Styles, Issues Sharply Divide Two Candidates

October 22, 2000|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Susan Carpenter McMillan, best known as the spokeswoman for President Clinton accuser Paula Jones, bounds up to the podium, throws her hands into the air and launches into yet another campaign speech.

"I feel like a little cheerleader up here--a Republican cheerleader," she gushes to a roomful of GOP members of the conservative Lincoln Club in her bid to win a state Assembly seat. "I've never identified with a candidate so much as I have with George Bush. You know, compassionate conservatism, someone who speaks from the heart."

Despite her enthusiasm, Carpenter McMillan's race against Democrat Carol Liu for the 44th Assembly District is one of the quietest in an otherwise raucous corner of the state, the contested swing districts of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena area.

Rep. James Rogan, the Republican congressman who helped lead the House impeachment drive against Clinton, is fighting ferociously to defend his seat against Democratic state Sen. Adam Schiff. Battles are also raging in two other Assembly and state Senate races here.

But whatever the Liu-Carpenter McMillan contest lacks in fireworks, it makes up for with a striking clash of personal styles and political views. Both women have careers involving politics and are mothers in their 50s--Liu has three children, Carpenter McMillan two--but the similarities stop there.

Liu, a former history teacher and La Canada Flintridge councilwoman who has poured money into her own campaign, is a little-known politician who emphasizes her practical experience in the classroom and the council chambers.

Carpenter McMillan is an outspoken television commentator who savors the public eye, a self-styled "conservative feminist" who spent years crusading against abortion and the sexual abuse of women and children.

It's the small-town, if uncommonly wealthy, lawmaker vs. the media-savvy, big-city TV personality. The candidates have staked out opposing positions on issues from education reform to gas-tax relief, often along party lines. Libertarian Jerry Douglas, a Montrose software engineer, is also on the ballot.

Months ago, worried Democrats publicly fretted that Carpenter McMillan might rake in cash from donors disgusted with the president.

But trading on her anti-Clinton credentials has apparently proved a tough sell in this district, a suburban swath nestled in the foothills of the Verdugo and San Gabriel mountains, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans, 45% to 37%.

Liu has contributed more than $600,000 to her own campaign and amassed five times as much as Carpenter McMillan. As of Sept. 30, Liu had $75,000 in cash, more than twice as much as her rival.

In total, Liu has raised $887,000, compared with Carpenter McMillan's $169,000.

Though some Republican strategists insist the seat is winnable, the GOP's Assembly caucus has avoided the race.

"We were not prepared to stretch ourselves anywhere that wasn't comfortable for us," said James Fisfis, political director for the Assembly Republican Caucus. He said the group may reconsider helping Carpenter McMillan if the race tightens.

For now, though, Carpenter McMillan is prepared to go it alone.

"I am clearly the underdog," she said, dismissing any hope of a last-minute GOP cash infusion. "I have this moral repugnancy to raising all this money. . . . It's just evil."

Liu has been a formidable presence in local mailboxes, inundating voters with colorful brochures touting her record on education, balancing city budgets, bipartisan cooperation and minority hiring.

The winner of the Nov. 7 election will claim the distinction of being the first woman to represent the district, which includes Pasadena, Altadena, La Canada Flintridge, Sunland-Tujunga and parts of Glendale. The seat is open because Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena) is running for the state Senate.

Former Stronghold for Republicans

Until Scott's election in 1996, the area was a Republican stronghold. But an influx of Latinos, Asian Americans and Armenian Americans, as well as a growing number of young, liberal workers in the entertainment business, has tilted the political landscape toward the Democrats.

Liu, 59, the Chinese American daughter of a fourth-generation Californian and an immigrant father, has financed the bulk of her campaign with the help of her husband, Mike Peevey, a former president of Southern California Edison.

She spends much of her time these days calling campaign donors and attending small coffee gatherings in private homes, listening to people complain about frustrated teachers, illiterate children and rundown schools.

At one recent event she told listeners: "It's time to pull up our sleeves, put our elbows together, get in that boat and pull deeply on those oars to fix public education."

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