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New GOP Face in Tough Battle Against Pavley

Michael Wissot has Sen. John McCain's backing. But that might not be enough to wrest the 41st Assembly seat from Agoura Hills' ex-mayor.

October 21, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Knocking on doors of likely voters in Woodland Hills, Michael Wissot flashes a game smile, drops off a flier with a beaming photo of himself and Rudy Giuliani, and makes some all-important political small talk.

"How about sending a nice Jewish boy to Sacramento?" he asks 77-year-old Sharon Rosen when he sees a mezuzah in her doorway. "How about sending a nice, honest boy to Sacramento?" she responds. "That's the first thing."

It's another day on an uphill campaign trail for the 28-year-old first-time candidate who is challenging Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills).

The numbers don't favor Wissot, the GOP standard-bearer in a heavily Democratic area. Spanning a region from Santa Monica up the coast to Oxnard, the 41st Assembly District is 48% Democratic and 33% Republican.

On top of that, Pavley is a veteran of local politics in the district while Wissot started the campaign with virtually no local name recognition.

Pavley, 53, was the first mayor of Agoura Hills, taking the post soon after the small, semi-rural city on the western fringe of Los Angeles County incorporated in 1982. She served on the City Council there for the next 15 years, including three additional terms as mayor.

In her first term as a state legislator, she drew national attention by pushing through the nation's first restrictions on vehicular carbon dioxide emissions. The auto industry fought the measure vigorously and has vowed to sue. But if the law Pavley championed remains intact, it will change the design of all vehicles made in the U.S.

To her opponent, the key issue is Pavley herself -- a woman he paints as a well-intended but fundamentally clueless environmental zealot.

"No doubt her heart is in the right place," he said. "She'd make a great president of the Sierra Club. But she doesn't have the aptitude to address just about anything outside the environment."

For her part, Pavley has no problem identifying her "passions" as education -- she was a Moorpark middle-school teacher for 25 years -- and the environment.

After she was elected in 2000, she said, a politically savvy friend offered some valuable advice: "You're in there for such a limited time," the friend said. "Focus on just a few things that are really important to you and try to make a difference."

So far, Wissot contends, the difference has not been a good one. "She wants to tax our motor vehicles," Wissot told a man who answered the door during his Woodland Hills precinct-walk.

"She wants to clean our air," the man countered.

Blond and telegenic, Wissot grew up in Westlake Village, graduated from James Madison University in Virginia, and earned a master's degree from the University of Arizona.

He has not run for office before but was spurred into politics by a brief stint on the staff of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

In his SUV (license plate: PR4GOP), Wissot sometimes listens to CDs of a memoir by McCain.

"He reminds me of the commitment I always want to have as a public servant," Wissot said.

McCain endorsed his former staffer, who worked for him as an intern in 1998 and helped on two campaigns. But that association -- a key point in Wissot's pitch to voters -- may not be enough to unseat Pavley, according to a Republican political consultant.

"We have an outstanding candidate in a very bad district," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book political report. "It's a highly safe Democratic seat."

With much of Oxnard and all of Port Hueneme added as a result of redistricting, the percentage of registered Latinos in the district rose from 5% to 10%, boosting the number of likely Democratic votes, Hoffenblum said.

"Wissot is young, articulate, aggressive and has political experience," Hoffenblum said. "He's looking for the future."

When Pavley first entered a race for state office in 2000, she was also viewed as a long shot.

In the primary to replace Sheila Kuehl, who moved to the state Senate, Pavley was outspent more than 2 to 1 by S. David Freeman, then the head of Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power.

In her subsequent campaign against Republican child advocate Jayne Murphy Shapiro, she rolled out the same credentials she relies upon now: career teacher, activist who helped incorporate Agoura Hills to save it from over-development, and a strong environmental voice on the California Coastal Commission and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy advisory board.

Pavley was swept to victory.

In her first term, Pavley introduced a number of bills that became law without much fuss: the creation of a state poet laureate's post, for example, and a pilot project to turn waste from rice operations in Northern California into bricks for freeway sound barriers.

By far her most contentious bill was one that brought her both the wrath of the auto industry and a "Freshman of the Year" award from the California League of Conservation Voters.

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