When someone makes an issue of Assemblyman Tom Hayden's past, it is usually a Republican. There is the assemblyman who has pledged to have him ousted from the Legislature as a traitor. Or the state senator who raises funds by portraying Hayden as an unrepentant Vietnam-era radical. Or the ex-Marine who has charged that Hayden is bent on destroying the American way of life.
Then there is J. Alex Cota, Democrat, a small man with a clip-on tie who could teach all three Republicans a thing or two about Hayden-bashing. Call him a man with a mission. That's how Cota explains his reasons for spending $64,000, apparently his own money, on a futile 1984 campaign against Hayden.
Call him a man who refuses to quit. That's how the 58-year-old Cota defends his decision to challenge Hayden (D-Santa Monica) once again June 3 in the 44th Assembly District primary, even if it means spending another $64,000.
Call him confrontational. That's the reputation he has earned for recruiting outraged Indochinese boat people to heckle Hayden at public appearances, and for his frequent attempts to force Hayden into a debate.
Just don't call him a Republican sympathizer. He admits that right-wing groups have helped him distribute campaign literature. But J. Alex Cota, lifelong Democrat, says "phooey" to accusations that he is financially backed by such noted GOP Hayden-bashers as Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora), Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) and Vietnam veteran Mickey Conroy.
"I consider myself a liberal," Cota said firmly. "I am running because someone has to stand up for real Democratic principles."
Cota contends that Hayden does not represent true Democratic principles, that he is not even a true liberal when it comes down to it. He has accused the assemblyman of encouraging the Communist takeover in Vietnam through his 1960s anti-war activities. By association he has blamed Hayden for Communist incursions elsewhere, including Afghanistan. He has also said that Hayden is weak on human rights and a failure as the 44th District representative.
Hayden called Cota's charges "blatantly false" and charged that Cota is a "front" for right-wing extremists who have attacked him since his election.
"I don't know exactly who he is," Hayden said. "But he's not a normal person or a normal candidate. . . . He's a very mysterious fellow."
Privately, some people close to Hayden's organization have said that they consider Cota a fanatic. Cota contends that Hayden aides are using KGB tactics to harass him and discredit his campaign. He bristles at the notion that there is anything odd or suspicious about his crusade against Hayden.
"I don't hate anybody," Cota said. "I don't go for hatred. Hatred is not why I'm fighting. I have very concrete reasons for opposing Tom Hayden."
Cota's reasons mostly have to do with Hayden's past as the founder of Students for a Democratic Society, a front-line war protester who visited North Vietnam, and a member of the so-called "Chicago Seven," the radical group charged with disrupting the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
But he also has a political platform. Cota said he wants the state
to spend more money on juvenile correctional facilities. He supports campaign finance reform and has called for more humane treatment of the homeless. Cota also supports legislation to improve water quality in Santa Monica Bay. At the same time, he dismisses Hayden's considerable efforts to protect the bay.
Cota professes to have no interests other than politics and will say little about his private life, other than that he is single. He is equally tight-lipped about finances. When pressed, he says that he has paid for his campaigns with money earned from his business, J. Alex Cota Real Estate.
The Cota campaign is directed from Cota's house in Rancho Park, a modest white stucco place with a brown Cadillac Seville parked in the driveway. It is there, under a red tile roof, that he sits at a typewriter and produces an unending string of pointed and sometimes gruesomely illustrated position papers.
One flyer, which Cota distributed at a dinner honoring Hayden's contributions to the Orthodox Jewish community, showed a picture of a boy, supposedly from Afghanistan, who had lost his hands in a Communist bombing raid. The flyer accused Hayden of being soft on Communism and was signed, "Alex Cota, your fellow American."
His latest missive criticizes those who oppose the confirmation of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, whom he supports.
"Misguided persons are seizing upon the unfair and inaccurate accusations for political gain," Cota charged. "This damages the body politic!"
Cota will pay to have thousands of copies of such messages printed and then distribute them door-to-door on lonely walks through the 44th Assembly District, or wherever Hayden is scheduled to make an appearance. He will approach people at supermarkets. He will even broadcast his message on radio.
Cota said his determination is borne of a childhood in Los Angeles's Boyle Heights, a tough neighborhood where one had to fight to survive.
Cota left Boyle Heights to join the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. After his discharge, he enrolled at UCLA and graduated in 1951 with a degree in political science. Two years later, Cota sued the university for dismissing him from UCLA School of Law.
Cota charged that the university had forced him out of law school because of his liberal political views. The university said Cota was not readmitted because of his poor grades.
Cota tried to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was rejected. In 1960, seven years after unsuccessfully attempting to be readmitted, the 32-year-old Cota was arrested for vagrancy when he was found asleep at the door of the UCLA library, according to newspaper reports of the time. Cota was quoted as saying he was there to continue his protest against the school.
Cota's first political campaign came in the mid-1960s, when he challenged then-Los Angeles County Supervisor Ernest Debbs. Cota, who had spent some time as a probation counselor in the late 1950s, said he entered the race because he disapproved of conditions at juvenile correctional facilities.
Cota lost the campaign, but continued his fight for correctional reform when he joined six other people in a 1976 taxpayers suit challenging the use of public funds for the reconstruction of Sylmar Juvenile Hall, which had been damaged in the 1971 earthquake. Cota charged that the facility was "unjust and inhumane" and should be abandoned in favor of smaller facilities.
The other plaintiffs dropped out in 1977, when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected the suit. But Cota continued the fight. Acting as his own attorney, he took the case to the state Court of Appeal and lost in 1980.
By 1981, Cota had surfaced as a candidate for the Los Angeles Board of Education's new Westside seat. In a crowded field of candidates, Cota said he stood out as the most aggressive proponent of school integration and drug counseling.
In one candidates' debate, Cota proclaimed his support for multiracial education by referring to his upbringing. "I learned how to cuss in Yiddish, make love in Japanese and argue like a devil in Spanish," Cota is quoted as saying. Among 12 candidates, Cota came in eighth, with 3.79% of the vote.
Cota did not run in 1982, when Hayden first captured the 44th Assembly District seat. He said he considered the race but decided instead to throw his support behind Steve Saltzman, Hayden's Democratic primary opponent.
By 1984, however, Cota seemed obsessed with the David versus Goliath concept of turning Hayden out of office. He pronounced himself furious that Hayden had spent $1.7 million, much of it from his wife, actress Jane Fonda, on the 1982 campaign. He demanded that Hayden debate the issues and was even thrown out of a Westside meeting on education when he tried to question Hayden about the treatment of Cambodian refugees by the Communist Vietnamese regime.
Despite the fact that political analysts gave him virtually no chance of winning in the liberal, heavily Democratic district that stretches from Malibu to Century City, Cota rented a one-room office on Wilshire Boulevard and conducted a full-time campaign. He received about 19% of the primary vote, and subsequently entered the general election as a write-in candidate.
Campaign finance reports from 1984 show that Cota received virtually no outside financial support. Fewer than 10 people are listed as contributors, and Cota stated that he personally loaned the campaign about $64,000.
On the other hand, Cota did receive volunteer support from retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Mickey Conroy, head of a conservative Orange County organization called California War Veterans for Justice. In a 1984 interview, Conroy said that he and some friends helped prepare more than 78,000 Cota campaign packets. Cota said anyone is welcome to distribute his campaign materials, but said that he has received no financial support from Conroy.
Reached at his office, Conroy confirmed that he has given no money to Cota. He said he does not expect to play any role in Cota's campaign this year, even as a volunteer, because of other commitments. But J. Alex Cota presses on.
With the primary hardly more than a month away, he is looking for campaign headquarters. He is touching base with boat people who might share his interest in challenging Hayden's record on human rights. He is printing more flyers and wearing out shoe leather on solitary treks through well-manicured 44th District neighborhoods. He is continuing his private mission.
"Hey," said J. Alex Cota. "This is America."