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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Race's Remaining Issa Has Low Profile, but Lofty Ideas

Not to be confused with Vista congressman, the engineer wants to shorten the workweek and build an airport in the Antelope Valley.

September 11, 2003|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

It was tempting to believe it was his visionary politics -- his call for a 36-hour workweek, or his plan to ask the feds to refinance California's growing debt -- that distinguished him from the heap of would-be governors and drew requests for interviews from CNN, radio talk show hosts and newspapers from coast to coast.

But in reality, the unexpected media attention resulted from his simple appellation on the candidates' list: S. Issa. Republican.

For S. Issa, one of 135 candidates fighting for space on the recall stage, sharing a name with the election's benefactor -- San Diego-area Rep. Darrell Issa -- has been both a blessing and a curse.

It brought a surge of immediate media interest, particularly when Darrell Issa (R-Vista) withdrew from the race after Arnold Schwarzenegger declared his candidacy.

But it also threatened to consign S. Issa to the ranks of comedic candidates -- the porn star, the child actor, the marijuana grower and now the political novice trying to trade on voters' familiarity with his name.

For the record, Saad Issa the candidate is a soft-spoken suburban engineer who shares nothing with the congressman but a political party and a common family name. Issa translates to Jesus in Arabic.

While Darrell Issa is a conservative, the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, a Christian with a net worth of $100 million and a love of the limelight, Saad Issa is a moderate, a middle-class soccer dad who frets about the cost of groceries, insurance and gasoline. A Muslim whose father was a professor in Kuwait, he immigrated here as a college student 23 years ago and guards his privacy so assiduously, he had to be goaded into giving an interview.

"I don't know this Darrell Issa, I never met him," said Saad Issa, sitting in the sunny kitchen of his family's condominium in a suburb he would prefer not be named. "I'm not in the race for politics, but to bring out the average person's dilemma. The working fathers and mothers. The government employees, the teachers. The family where both parents have to work day and night just to provide the basics for their kids."

He has no illusions of victory, but also no intention of forfeiting his family's privacy. He doesn't want his wife and children named, has ignored requests for campaign appearances, and balked at sitting for a photograph.

If he sees any contradiction in running for public office while shunning publicity, he doesn't show it.

"I think some people just want to make fun of the whole process," he says, explaining his aversion to the limelight. "They treat it like a joke. But I'm happy that the system works in such a way we can have 135 people running for office. That's true freedom ... it should make us proud."

Despite his low-profile persona, he insists he's running a serious campaign. He may not have a Web site or entourage, but he's armed with earnestness, a wide circle of friends who talk up his views, and a manila folder stuffed with news articles and government reports documenting California's decline and handwritten notes detailing what Gov. Saad Issa would do.

For starters, he wants the workweek cut from 40 hours to 36, freeing employees to spend more time with their families and creating part-time jobs for the unemployed. He'd like to build an airport in the Antelope Valley to ease the burden on LAX. He would encourage cities to do more to help the homeless and cater less to big business and developers. And he'd make protecting salaries and benefits of government employees a priority.

Not a typical Republican platform perhaps, but then this is hardly a typical governor's race.

Like many of the lesser-known candidates, Issa was drawn into the race by a combination of civic pride and personal concerns. A graduate of USC, he works for a government agency -- though he declined to say which one -- where co-workers fret constantly about layoff notices and rising health insurance premiums.

"I see how much this affects their lives. So when the recall came along, I thought maybe this was a place an average person could put some ideas out there. Maybe someone would listen, something would catch on."

He broached the idea over the dinner table. His family said "sure" and conversation moved on. "We thought it was another one of his nutty jokes," said his schoolteacher wife. "We know C-SPAN is his favorite channel, but running for governor? Come on."

But later that night, he summoned his wife and three children and explained that he was serious, that it was worth the $3,500 filing fee for this rare chance to be a player in history.

The campaign "has been a reality check for the kids," his wife said. "It's changed our usual dinner table conversation. Now they realize there is more to life than soccer and school."

They've been taught the best way to handle pesky reporters, and there are signs they've learned well. When Issa's wife questioned their 10-year-old son about why he had skipped his turn washing the dinner dishes, his response was, "I have no comment at this time."

And the candidate's wife has learned a lesson as well. A lifelong Democrat who has been active in liberal causes, she changed her voter registration when Issa decided to run, because only Republicans could sign his nominating petition. Then she began phoning friends and co-workers to see if they might know others qualified to sign.

They got the required 65 signatures in a flash. That was a surprise, she said. "I didn't know I had so many friends who were Republicans."

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