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The State | CAPITOL JOURNAL

When Politicians Act Like They Are Invisible

July 12, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — What do these guys think? These Gary Condits, who break the first rule of politics: Don't do anything you wouldn't want to read about in the local newspaper.

Like, as a middle-aged married man, having an affair with a young intern from your hometown. That, after all, is at the root of Condit's problem today.

No, Abbe Lowell, you're wrong. A congressman is not entitled to a private life. He's entitled only to the life his voters consider acceptable for their congressman. They decide. And it may well not include chasing after a local girl, then lying about it when she disappears.

What do the Gary Condits think? When scandals surface, and people shake their heads in disbelief, I always recall the explanation of the late Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh, a legendary Assembly speaker in the 1960s and later the state treasurer.

Unruh mused that seemingly sensible people would get elected, move to the capital and think they had become invisible. Pampered by perks and power, they'd be lulled into the delusion that the public could see only what the politician wanted it to. Not the whoring or boozing, only the wholesome deeds and bills.

Truth becomes a misnomer, spun to decorate and distort. When something embarrassing surfaces--and the need for real truth is essential to climb out from under an ugly story--the invisible politician is incapable of candor. In an attempt to cover up, he digs deeper into a hole.

They don't all do it. Condit's in the minority, despite the temptations of politics--the temptations of money and easy sex.

"It's high pressure, adrenaline, odd people being thrown together, the appeal of power, the thrill of living on the edge. I don't defend it, but I can understand it totally," says one veteran politico. "The only thing that comes close is being in the entertainment industry or a sports star."

When Condit first ran for the Assembly from the rural Modesto area in 1982, his campaign theme was: "A Good Example."

Here was the son of a Baptist preacher who had married his high school sweetheart. As a local elected official, he had heroically helped sandbag a levee one night during a flood. He didn't drink or smoke.

But people who recall Condit at the Capitol remember that he did chase women. He was a "good example" of Unruh's invisible man.

Condit is mainly recalled, though, as the ringleader of a "Gang of Five" that plotted to overthrow the Assembly speaker, fellow Democrat Willie Brown. Attacking Brown, a flamboyant, African American liberal from San Francisco, made Condit a hero in the conservative Central Valley.

After the cabal collapsed, the other four plotters eventually made peace with the powerful speaker. But Condit never did. "That man has ice water in his veins," Brown said of Condit.

Gray Davis was elected to the Assembly the same year as Condit. But they did not hang at night. They really didn't become buddies until Davis began running for governor in 1997.

Condit, by then a congressman, was one of the first House members to endorse Davis. He became the politician closest to Davis, although this isn't saying that much. Davis is a loner.

The "Blue Dog" Democrat gave Davis a conservative cachet in the valley. He provided access to farm industry campaign contributions and a potent political machine. Condit later became the governor's man in Congress.

In turn, Condit gained power in Sacramento. He has maneuvered allies into key jobs. (Example: Ag Secretary Bill Lyons.) His two children work in the governor's office. He has influenced ag and water policy.

Many think Davis has been grooming Condit to run for governor in 2006.

"Everyone has been kissing Gary's rear the last two years because of Gray," notes one Central Valley lobbyist.

What happens to Davis if Condit has snuffed his career, as many in Sacramento suspect?

Very little, probably. Davis is now an entrenched governor with ample power to influence politics in the valley.

But if former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan wins the GOP gubernatorial nomination next year and picks up far more votes in L.A. County than a Republican normally does, Davis could sorely need a Condit-like machine along Highway 99.

What happens to the present redrawing of congressional districts? Condit's marginal district (46% D, 39% R) may have to be padded with more Democratic voters to save the seat, some party leaders believe. But this would hurt Democratic candidates in adjacent districts.

What can Condit do? Stop acting like he's invisible. Do mea culpas; Americans love to forgive.

Most important, help--truly help--find the local girl.

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