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Seven Journeys to a Choice

Voters over three generations take a serious look at the election and whether to follow their hearts -- or their heads.

October 07, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

Jim and Mill LaVerde followed it like a pennant race. Sam and Stephanie Larson saw it as a morality play. Eleanor Viggers was drawn to it like a train wreck. Steve and Yolanda Whitehorse just tried not to come to blows over it.

All seven people, spread over three generations, defied the snickers of the rest of the nation and took the California recall election seriously.

For nearly two months, they weighed whether to follow their hearts or their heads to choose who should lead a state of 33 million residents with a $1.4-trillion economy.

They live within blocks of each other in Burbank, a city with a dead-center voting record that deviates little from the state norm. Found on one street on one day, they were united only by a willingness to share their squabbles at the breakfast table, shouts at the TV and quiet late-night talks.

They are neither a poll nor a focus group, and don't want to be reduced to a label. They just want to have their say on Tuesday. Here's how they decided.

Responsibility at Issue

It's about responsibility. That's the way Sam and Stephanie Larson saw the recall from the outset.

Sam, a 37-year-old medical marketing executive who grew up on a ranch in eastern Washington, heard snippets of Gov. Gray Davis at his first town hall meeting Aug. 19. In a contrite note aimed at repairing his image, Davis admitted that he should have reacted more quickly to the energy crisis that darkened homes.

So far, so good, Sam thought. Then Davis went on to blame energy companies, the Bush administration and an alleged national Republican conspiracy.

He lost the Larsons there and then. "I guess my soapbox that I'm always getting up on is about personal responsibility," Sam said. "Nobody feels like they're responsible for anything anymore. Our society has developed this sense of entitlement to everything.... So people complain about illegal aliens, but guess what? There's a ton of crops up in the San Joaquin Valley that need to be picked, and if it's not illegal aliens, are you going to do it? You know, and they complain about the price of gas, but they have to drive their Hummer that gets eight miles to the gallon."

Sam and Stephanie, 34, met at a medical convention in Atlanta in 1999, when Stephanie was working as a product spokeswoman at Sam's booth. Right away, she said, their conversation went beyond chitchat. But it went no further until they ran into each other at another convention in Anaheim. They found that they ran counter to the Generation X stereotype. They were motivated, took moral stands and rejected the me-first culture they saw.

On New Year's Day 2001, Stephanie Ladenburger moved from Atlanta to San Jose to give Sam Larson and the Golden State a chance. They moved to Burbank summer before last and married in May.

Like many newlyweds, Sam and Stephanie are still feeling out each other's views. They pause to hear each other out. They seldom interrupt. They look each other in the eyes when they speak. They don't talk politics. They talk values.

Sam is a registered Republican. Stephanie, who grew up in a Democratic family in suburban Iowa, swung from Democrat to Republican and now calls herself an independent. Neither voted in the 2002 governor's election, when Davis beat Republican Bill Simon Jr.

The Larsons oppose abortion and favor school prayer. They keep a Bible on the coffee table of their one-bedroom apartment. They live on Sam's income, saving for a house, unsure yet if Southern California is home.

Stephanie spends her time organizing a local chapter of Mustard Seed Communities, a Christian philanthropic group that sends volunteers to orphanages and schools in the developing world, with the hope of converting them to volunteers at home. Last year, Stephanie got Sam to go to Jamaica. Now, he would like to see everyone spend some time doing something for others. "I would almost rather see us go to some type of mandatory public service for young people," he said. "Like two years in the Peace Corps."

Sam is worried about people thinking too little about helping others and more about what to buy. "My profession is a lot to blame," the marketing executive said, "because we're constantly pumping messages toward people that you need this or you're not cool, you've got to have the latest whatever. You know: Work hard and take care of you; look out for No. 1; if someone is not up to your standard, you turn your nose at them."

In late August, the Larsons looked at the 135 candidates -- including a porn star, a former child actor and a comedian who smashes watermelons -- and wondered if anyone matched their convictions.

They barely even knew the seven top contenders: Simon; Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante; state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a stalwart conservative; businessman Peter V. Ueberroth; talk radio host and author Arianna Huffington; Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate who fought for attention in the last campaign; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose announcement brought out the paparazzi in force.

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