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A Few Words About Rejection for Our Mayoral Wannabes

April 08, 2001|JAMES RICCI

COME TUESDAY NIGHT, ALL BUT TWO, AND MAYBE EVEN ALL BUT ONE, of the 15 Los Angeles mayoral candidates will receive a definitive message from voters: We find you insufficient, undesirable, not our type.

Oh, we love to watch our politicians, those attention-hungry strivers, go down in smoky spirals against the sunny backdrop of their ambitions. Electoral politics is blood sport, and there are always more vanquished to savor than victors.

The satisfaction we take is based on an assumption that, just like people, politicians shudder when they're stung, grieve when they're rejected, and ache--ache with special delectability--when they're disregarded. But is this really the case?

One of the toughest recent defeats was visited last November on Steven Kuykendall, a one-term Republican congressman from Rancho Palos Verdes. How was he faring five months into his exile from office, I wondered? What wisdoms did he have for the poor devils destined for public repudiation the day after tomorrow?

Kuykendall is a political moderate, an amiable and intelligent man of 54, gray-haired and of comfortable girth. A facile fund-raiser and exuberant campaigner, the Oklahoma-bred ex-combat Marine and erstwhile banker managed to swim against the past decade's swift anti-GOP current in California. He won seats on the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council and in the state Assembly and Congress.

Kuykendall was accustomed to close races and knew what it was like to win and lose them. As his most recent campaign, a $4-million, neck-and-neck affair against Democrat Jane Harman, churned into its final days, he sensed victory. "We thought we would win it by one or two percentage points," he recalled on a recent morning, sitting at his kitchen table in a dazzling white dress shirt and banker's necktie. "We thought, 'We probably got her.' "

He lost by 4,452 votes, of 226,850 cast, finally a victim of a Democratic tidal wave in the state.

For a brief two years, Kuykendall had occupied a three-room office in the "freshman dorm" on the top floor of the Cannon Office Building in Washington. It had government-issue furniture and government-issue curtains on a window that looked out uninspiringly on a concrete interior courtyard. It was, nonetheless, a place of the greatest personal fulfillment for its principal occupant, who was named to the Armed Services, Transportation and Science committees.

"Oh, I loved it," Kuykendall said. "I'd been down the corporate path, and been self-employed in good economic times and bad. Things I'd learned as a Marine in Vietnam, as a banker--all these things turned out to be phenomenally useful. I understood defense contractors because I'd helped finance them. I understood utilities and the airlines and knew the savings and loan industry, having watched its collapse. Here I was actually using for the first time all the talents I'd acquired over the previous 20 years of my life. "

Congress untypically was still in session after the election that resulted in his defeat. Although exhausted from campaigning, he had to return to work in Washington immediately. "We had to close up the office by the second week of December. Here they are trying to move you out--'Come on, come on, you've got to leave'--and you're still in session. I didn't really catch up on sleep till the last couple weeks of February."

In retrospect, he said, the postelection exhaustion probably obscured much of the immediate pain of losing. That and all sane politicians' realization that they live by the sword. The loss proved more depressing to his wife, Jan, a physical therapist, and to his campaign staff.

"What did it mean, really? That you lost a race for the first time in 11 years? It was tough, but I've had tougher things happen to me. I went into business during the early 1990s, when California was in a depression. We were having a tough time making a living for a couple of years. I had to go fight a war. This is nothing special; I mean, nobody's trying to kill you, folks."

Kuykendall probably will work in the Bush administration, most likely in something related to defense. It will be his first tour of duty on the executive side of government. He doesn't rule out running for elective office again.

For his soul siblings headed for the slaughter Tuesday, he has the following advice: At the end of election day, be exhausted. Be physically spent. Be out of money. That will be your ultimate consolation. "After you've been defeated, and people have observed you working so hard, they will realize how committed you were or would be to serving them in office. They will elect you to something else, or they will offer you other opportunities you couldn't have dreamt of."

Let's face it. Politicians, though we may delight in burlesquing them, are more energetic and optimistic than the general run of people. Those qualities probably never serve them better than in defeat. Brooding and self-doubt, bah, they're for writers.

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