When Cary Savitch ran for Congress last year, much of the political establishment wrote him off.
How seriously were people supposed to take a candidate whose campaign platform was rebuilding the nation's supply of smallpox vaccine and protecting citizens from anthrax?
Now, the Ventura physician is launching another bid for office, challenging incumbent Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara).
The 53-year-old Reform Party candidate acknowledges he is as much a longshot as before. But in the post-Sept. 11 climate, with anthrax-tainted mail and heightened public fear, he's hopeful people will be more receptive to his message.
"I don't want to be an I-told-you-so," said Savitch, a husband and father of three. "I'm telling people this was my issue then and this is my issue now. You've got to go ahead from here: 'What is the game plan today?' Not, 'Where did we fail yesterday?' "
Although he entered politics because of bioterrorism concerns, Savitch made his mark as an author and activist with his position on AIDS policy.
Civil libertarians, gay rights advocates and some health care providers often bristle at Savitch's views on how government should control the spread of AIDS. Some have accused him of being extremist, homophobic and unrealistic.
Savitch, who specializes in infectious diseases, contends that public health departments have fallen down on the job, that they are driven more by politics than by conscience. He wants the state to allow doctors to report all HIV-positive patients to local health departments by name, rather than by numerical code. That would better allow health officials to track HIV-positive patients and notify sexual partners who could be at risk.
He contends that most doctors agree with his position but don't speak out because they fear condemnation by activists.
As he was making a name for himself in the AIDS debate, Savitch was also learning about what many health officials already saw as a rising threat on U.S. soil: bioterrorism.
There was the Japanese cult that released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995, killing a dozen people. There was the breakup of the Soviet Union, which led to the black market sale of nuclear and biological weaponry.
A member of the Infectious Disease Assn. of California, Savitch said he attended several meetings in 1997 and 1998 during which national experts spoke about how doctors and public health systems should prepare for such threats.
But Savitch didn't think politicians were taking the threat seriously. The release of smallpox in the U.S., where inoculation ended three decades ago and vaccine is in short supply, could turn society upside-down, he said.
"Despite AIDS being my main issue, how could I be aware of this looming threat of smallpox and not say anything about it?" Savitch said. "If nothing else, I wanted to get the word out about this."
Message Failed to Resonate With Public
He decided in 1999 to run for Congress, pitting himself--an unknown with no fund-raising machine--against longtime Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Democrat Michael Case, a Ventura attorney.
"I'd get up before my rounds and go to supermarkets and hand out fliers and ask people: 'Are you concerned about smallpox?' " Savitch said.
"I was going to Target to spread the word about bioterrorism. And people would look at me like, 'Are you crazy?' They were like, 'What is this guy talking about?' "
The media didn't take him seriously either, he said. "It was like, 'Why are you talking about this? Nobody wants to hear about this,' " he said. "But that didn't matter. I was dealing with the right issues. I mean, school vouchers? That pales in comparison to life itself."
His message didn't resonate with voters. Savitch garnered 3% of the vote.
Nancy Snow, a political science professor who consults for UCLA and teaches at USC, said that's not surprising.
"Prior to Sept. 11, you would have been considered a kook for running on that," she said. "I'm sorry to say that, but it's true. We all had other things we worried about. It's like, 'Great, add another layer. Now I've got to worry about smallpox.' "
Snow said even the incumbents who were concerned about bioterrorism knew it wouldn't sell to the electorate as much as mainstream and local issues.
"There were committees in Congress looking at it, but I cannot think of any candidate who was making his mark on this issue," Snow said. "The focus was on the economy."
Case, the Democrat who also lost to Gallegly last year, gives Savitch credit for being "right on target" with his concerns about smallpox and anthrax, but said Savitch's intensity--often manifested in diatribes that invoked doomsday scenarios--scared voters away.
"People thought he was too much like Chicken Little and saying, 'The sky is falling,' " Case said. "People predict things all the time, and they're usually wrong."
Gallegly said he has spoken several times with Savitch since the Sept. 11 attacks and has found his insights on smallpox useful.