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Conservative actor Chris Mitchum eyes seat in Congress

Chris Mitchum, son of actor Robert Mitchum, is challenging Rep. Lois Capps, a Democrat, and Abel Maldonado, the former Republican lieutenant governor, in a Central Coast district that's been redrawn to include more GOP voters.

May 30, 2012|By Steve Chawkins and Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • Chris Mitchum says he'd be tough on illegal immigration and oppose President Obama’s healthcare plan.
Chris Mitchum says he'd be tough on illegal immigration and oppose… (Los Angeles Times )

SANTA BARBARA — The last time Chris Mitchum won an election was when he ran for the board of the Screen Actors Guild, vowing to wrest the union from the grip of leftists.

Nearly three decades later, he's promising pretty much the same thing as he mounts a long-shot bid for a congressional seat in a newly designed Central Coast district.

"We're on the brink of a thousand years of darkness," the Santa Barbara Republican said in an interview, echoing a trademark Ronald Reagan phrase. "If we don't get our government back in the hands of the people, we're gone."

Mitchum, 68, has the same saddle-bag eyes and commanding physical presence as his father, the late actor Robert Mitchum. He's appeared in some 60 movies — many violent, some raunchy — made in 14 countries.

He's a decided underdog in a race defined by two controversial names in California politics, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and former Republican Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado.

Capps has been derided as a poster child for political gerrymandering because her current district — often called the "ribbon of shame" — was drawn in 2002 to wind along the coast from Oxnard to Monterey County, grabbing available Democrats while leaving out inland Republicans. A nonpartisan redistricting commission has since reconfigured things to include more Republicans, Maldonado among them.

Maldonado, who is also a former state senator, is a successful Santa Maria farmer scorned by conservative activists for his role in a 2009 deal with Democrats to raise state taxes. He was dogged in his unsuccessful 2010 reelection campaign by state findings of multiple workplace safety violations on his farm and by tax liens on the family business.

Allan Hoffenblum, who tracks races for the California Target Book, said Maldonado could be vulnerable on his right flank but notes that Mitchum lacks the money to be a serious threat in the new, nonpartisan primary. The former actor had less than one-tenth of Maldonado's funds as of May 16, when candidates last had to report their finances.

Hollywood isn't lining up to help. In fact, Mitchum casts himself as a tea party alternative to the famously liberal entertainment industry. He says he was an up-and-coming star in the politically charged Vietnam era when moviemakers stopped returning his calls.

"I'd been on the Johnny Carson show three times, I was on the cover of Seventeen magazine, I was the hottest thing going for six months — and I couldn't get a job interview," he said, sipping a latte at a Montecito Starbucks.

A casting director finally told him he couldn't be hired because he had been in three recent films — "Chisum," "Rio Lobo" and "Big Jake" — with his friend and mentor, conservative icon John Wayne.

Mitchum worked in Europe for several years before his next Hollywood project — "The Last Hard Men," a 1976 prison-break film with conservative friend Charlton Heston.

"Hollywood didn't want another strong conservative voice," Mitchum said. "It was the first time I realized how unified and nasty the left really is."

Mitchum made another foray into elective politics in 1998, shortly after the release of his final film, "Lethal Seduction," in which he co-starred with former Penthouse pet Julie Strain, released on DVD by Shock-O-Rama Cinema. He ran for state Assembly, losing by nine points to Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson.

Mitchum delivers a hard-line conservative message, tough on illegal immigration, boiling mad over President Obama's healthcare plan, enthusiastic about oil drilling, uncompromisingly against tax increases.

He likens supporters of the Occupy movement to the early Nazis: "They're restless, they're angry, they want to disrupt the status quo. My God," he asks, "Is this 1936?"

Obama, he says, "is a very dangerous man," and bipartisanship is a joke: "I'll be reaching across the aisle just as nice as they did when they shoved Obamacare down our throats."

He casts Capps, who has represented the Santa Barbara area in Congress for 14 years, as a tax-and-spend liberal following the party playbook.

"They call her the Pelosi of the Central Coast," he says: "Lois is just told what to do."

Capps spokesman Jeff Millman brushed off the charge. "Lois Capps has a record of accomplishment for every community in the district, working with Republicans, Democrats and independents on issues that are important to the Central Coast," he said.

Mitchum is also happy to lay into Maldonado, saying the former state official puts his own political career first. "He has a personal agenda," Mitchum told the crowd at a recent San Luis Obispo fundraiser, "and he'll stab anyone in the back to get to it."

Brandon Gesicki, Maldonado's campaign manager, tweaked Mitchum on his unusual cinematic career. "Throughout the campaign, Mitchum has portrayed himself as the second coming of Ronald Reagan," Gesicki said. "The distasteful movies he acted in suggest he is no Ronald Reagan."

Democratic power brokers are largely united behind Capps; a host of former lawmakers and state officials has backed Maldonado. Mitchum has been endorsed by the Santa Barbara County Republican Party, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) and a seniors group represented by entertainer Pat Boone.

Though Mitchum's famous name might garner him some votes, his movies might not. He starred in some sex-and-violence "grindhouse" films — "Ricco the Mean Machine" and "The Serpent Warriors," for example — that won't win any family-values awards.

Last March, the San Luis Obispo Tribune chided him for including a clip on his website, even with an "explicit warning."

"Well, thanks for the heads up," read an item in the paper's "Bouquets and Brickbats" column, "but you forgot to mention the bare-breasted corpse with her throat slit."

That clip — and a few from his more wholesome pictures — are no longer posted.

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