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Slot peddler

Knowing he couldn't win, Flynt entered the race to get message out.

October 04, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Who better than Larry Flynt to flesh out the outer limits of California's Total Recall?

The pornographer may not be America's favorite political pundit. Yet he was an arresting counterpoint to Ken Starr's pornographically explicit report on President Clinton's indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. In a Washington obsessed with sex, lies and Linda Tripp's tapes, his revelations of the alleged bedroom imbroglios of some top Republicans injected a farcical note into the impeachment and had a few prominent conservatives on the run.

Perhaps only in America could a former Dayton, Ohio, factory worker build a small empire of "Hustler" strip clubs, rise to prominence as the publisher of the most explicit skin periodical in the mainstream pornographic press -- and then aspire insistently to political influence.

For those who might wonder why the "smut peddler who cares" is running for governor, a better question might be: Why not? Here in the land of the free, it costs only $3,500 to get on the California ballot. For this pittance, Flynt has fielded "hundreds" of interview requests, according to a publicist, appearing on CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, the "Today Show" and dozens of radio stations.

Flynt is under no illusions that he will get more than a minuscule percentage of the vote.

But you can't beat the exposure.

Bothered by recall

"Don't get too close to him right now. He's concentrating," warns a handler in a dark suit, as Flynt plays seven-card stud at his Hustler Casino. Here, in the unshaded strip-mall haven of Gardena, a cauterizing afternoon sun is still heating up the asphalt, but the parking lot is already packed.

Inside the darkened, plush bordello-red interior, where the gaming tables are packed, the wall panels shimmer with real gold leaf. Sitting under an Austrian crystal chandelier, Flynt -- whose moon-faced looks have been compared to Rush Limbaugh and Uncle Fester of "The Addams Family" -- is holding court in his wheelchair.

He wants you to know that he's "deeply troubled" by the recall.

"We're setting the stage that if any state is not happy with the government, they can recall," he said. "[Davis] has not been a good governor. But I think the recall procedure subverts the Democratic process."

Once upon a time, people ran for governor for one reason: They wanted to win. But in California, with 135 contenders on the ballot -- only a few with a whisper of a chance -- there seem to be as many reasons as there are candidates.

Flynt has his reasons. Winning is not one of them.

"I never, for any second, had any ambition of being elected governor or going to Sacramento," he said in an interview in an office, which is adorned with neo-Greek marble statuary and Gilded Age-style antique replica lamps and furniture. "I knew voters would never be able to separate my candidacy from my profession."

He's got a poll to back himself up.

Flynt commissioned a survey, conducted in August by JKK Research, a Culver City polling firm, of 1,157 voters. It shows that only about 1% of them were likely to choose Flynt. It indicated that if he bought TV ads, he might be able to bump that up to 4%. Only 10% of respondents had a favorable opinion of Flynt -- and 75% had an unfavorable view. But the survey also indicated that one in three voters in California was at least willing to listen to his views, especially men under 50, Latinos, liberals and voters earning less than $40,000 a year.

"I was interested in the platform," Flynt said. "I thought I had ideas and I thought if I got them out in the marketplace, other politicians would incorporate them or members of the press would take them up."

He believes, for example, that nonviolent drug offenders should be rehabilitated, not incarcerated. And that society must "make a serious effort to control the border" and stem "illegal immigrants who are a huge drain on California."

But the issue Flynt talks about first and longest is his plan to offset California's budget deficit by expanding gaming regulations to allow slot machines in private casinos, namely his Hustler Casino.

"I think you could easily balance the budget with the taxes on the slot machines," he said.

Flynt has become, in political parlance, a "message candidate." Presidential races are increasingly strewn with these Un-Contenders, whose campaigns push issues, sell books and raise the stature of Republicans such as Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes; or Democrats such as Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown. Perhaps the most notorious nonaspirant was Ralph Nader, who could not have expected to win the 2000 presidential election, though he greatly raised the profile of the Green Party, and certainly changed the course of history by diverting votes from Al Gore.

And now, add to this august company, Larry Flynt. But at least he's upfront about it.

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