Guerrilla-Style Politics Help Lungren to Carve Out Conservative Niche
It was TV star Don Johnson who convinced Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) that he had made it as a congressman.
During a recent “Miami Vice” broadcast, the stylish detective shoved a narcotics dealer up against a wall and politely inquired whether he had heard about the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act.
“We can take away your car, we can take away your boat, we can take away your house, we can take away your money,” Johnson said before millions of viewers, describing a new law that allows prosecutors to seize the profits of drug traffickers.
“In fact, it’s true,” a delighted Lungren said later, proud of his role in helping to steer the legislation through the House of Representatives with a clever parliamentary maneuver that caught Democratic opponents by surprise.
Guerrilla-style politics have become a trademark for the 39-year-old Orange County Republican, who continually chafes against his party’s minority status in the House. His tirades against the Democratic leadership, especially in the days after his election in 1978, have had a way of starting “at a near shout and sometimes ending closer to a scream,” the respected Almanac of American Politics observed.
But none of this appears to have hurt Lungren politically at home, despite an aborted campaign for the GOP Senate nomination this year. By and large, the 42nd District is happy with its representative, giving him more than 70% of the vote in his last three campaigns.
Lungren will face Democrat Michael T. Blackburn, 48, a Long Beach attorney, in the November general election.
The suburban 42nd District seems tailor-made for Lungren, the son of Richard Nixon’s former personal physician. Encompassing the affluent suburban communities of northwest Orange County--including Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, Rossmoor, Los Alamitos and part of Westminster--plus a small strip of coastal Long Beach and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Lungren’s district has the highest household income of any in Orange County. It is almost 90% Caucasian.
With such strong support at the ballot box, Lungren has carved a niche for himself as one of the more conservative members of Congress.
Only last July, for example, Lungren made headlines when he ended up in a shoving match with Majority Leader James C. Wright (D-Texas), whom he accused of trying to block a politically sensitive vote on the death penalty.
It happened when House Republicans, hoping to force a vote on the issue, claimed they had at least 50 of their members present and standing in the House chambers--well over the minimum of 44 required by congressional rules.
But Wright, grinning, counted 44. In a minute, Lungren was up at the chair, threatening to demand that members be forced to walk down the aisle to cast every vote on every issue from then on.
“I said, ‘You know, you’re laughing at us, and that’s the problem around here.’ I said, ‘You guys have gotten so arrogant because you have been in power so long, you don’t understand what you’re doing to the House of Representatives itself!’ ” Lungren recalled telling Wright.
According to Lungren, Wright responded: “I’m smiling right now because I’m trying to hold inside how I feel. . . . I feel like coming down and punching you in the mouth.”
Grabbed Him By the Arm
At which point the venerable Wright got up and grabbed Lungren by the arm with both hands.
“Now, I do not have to fear for my physical being in the House,” Lungren told reporters later. “My avocations are weightlifting and tae kwan do (karate), and I certainly do not have to worry about someone who is two decades older than I am.”
Wright apologized the next day, and Marty Russo, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, assured Lungren that the next time he wanted a vote, he’d get a vote.
“I said, ‘Marty, you guys don’t understand,’ ” Lungren recalled. “ ‘I don’t want any more than what I’m due. All I’m asking for is the same thing that you people get, which is, I represent 500,000 people, same as you do. Just treat me with respect.’ ”
It was the kind of performance that prompted the Washington Post to compare Lungren with Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
But it also showed why Lungren, more than any other member of the Orange County congressional delegation, has earned the respect--however grudging--of the top leadership in his own party and the Democratic majority as well.
Lungren demonstrated his ability to work with the opposition party--and to take the heat from his own supporters--through his work last year on the controversial Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill. The measure cleared the House in large part because of his efforts, although it ultimately failed to become law.
As the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and Republican floor manager for the bill, Lungren worked to unite the GOP membership behind it. However, he took heat from fellow conservatives for provisions granting legal status to many aliens already in the country, and from Republican businessmen for sanctions that would be imposed on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. He was also criticized by Latino groups in his district who feared the sanctions would lead to discrimination against legal Latino residents.
“The Simpson-Mazzoli bill is comprehensive. That’s extremely important, because it’s a comprehensive problem,” Lungren said. “All of those things are necessary. I’m for legalization (of some illegal aliens) because it is a necessary tool for us to get the problem behind us.”
Bill Later Died
Although the bill later died in a conference committee of House and Senate members, Lungren won what Merced Democrat Tony Coehlo, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, regards as the most valued asset a congressman can possess: credibility.
“It’s his knowledge,” Coehlo said. “Knowledge is powerful in the Congress because most members are generalists and they’re not specialists. You’ve got to devote some time to it, and Dan has done that.”
Barney Frank, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat who occasionally clashed with Lungren over the immigration issue, said of his sometime adversary, “He’s a very conservative guy, and yet he has a talent which is very rare around here, and in the public at large--to be passionate and committed ideologically, but still be able to work with people you disagree with.”
Lungren caused something of a stir among conservatives again in 1984 when he abruptly reversed his longstanding opposition to the Martin Luther King holiday.
“I think there has been a mistaken idea among some that conservatives can’t be part of the civil rights movement,” he told a House subcommittee holding hearings on the issue, which he said “rises above partisanship . . . rises above political philosophy.”
But some of the speechmaking in Washington has caused trouble at home.
Long Beach city officials, for example, were furious when Lungren argued vehemently on the House floor in 1982 against spending $20 million to build a new federal building in Long Beach--within his own district.
“One of the concerns I have about us trying to balance the budget in this place is that we always point to the other guy, or we point to the other agency, or we point to the other branch of government,” he said.
“You will be told that the mayor of my community wants this building. Well, I will tell you that is true. The mayor of my community does want this building, as many mayors want any free money you can send to them.”
Long Beach officials were unquestionably annoyed, but “they got over it,” a Lungren aide said later. A year later, Lungren was the only member of a federal commission to oppose the allocation of $1.5 billion in financial redress for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. At the time, former Long Beach Mayor Eunice Sato, who is of Japanese descent, was in Washington to testify for the proposal.
“Should the Chinese be paid back for their underpaid role in helping the railroads open the American West? Should people of German ancestry be compensated for being denied rights in World War I?” Lungren asked, arguing it was “inappropriate that present-day taxpayers should be held accountable for actions that occurred 40 years ago.”
Employ the Right Argument
Orange County’s Washington lobbyist, Jim McConnell, says Lungren can generally be persuaded to help on legislative issues, as long as advocates employ the right argument.
McConnell recalls talking with a Lungren staff member recently about renewing a program to provide financial assistance to Southeast Asian refugees--one of the largest minority segments in Lungren’s district.
“One of the points I was making was that this was really a program that benefits Los Angeles and Orange (counties). I mean, per capita, we’ve got the highest concentration of refugees of any local jurisdiction in the country. And the staffer says that’s exactly the wrong argument to use.”
McConnell thought for a moment, then came up with figures to prove that, dollar for dollar, this particular aid program was unusually successful at helping refugees learn marketable job skills. “That’s what finally sold him,” he recalls. The program was eventually renewed.
Still, Lungren had trouble selling wealthy GOP donors on providing the financial support he needed for his ill-fated Senate campaign earlier this year. Most said they were waiting for a viable candidate to emerge from the crowd of Republicans that filled the early campaign field.
Afraid to Take a Stand
At a private lunch with business leaders in Los Angeles, a frustrated Lungren accused them of being afraid to take the kind of tough stands they ask him to take as a member of Congress.
“I think some people who are supposed risk-takers in the private sector view things a little bit differently when they get involved in the political sector,” he said. “Everybody wants to bet on a safe thing. I’m not sure that in the end (that) gets you what you want.”
The remarks caught several of the attendees by surprise. It was not the kind of statement one would expect from a candidate courting financial favors.
“We didn’t need Dan to tell us that,” said one participant, who asked not to be identified.
Lungren raised eyebrows again at a breakfast meeting with Orange County Republicans when he advocated lifting the executive order banning CIA assassinations to combat terrorism in the Middle East. He reiterated the statement at a public candidates’ forum a week or so later.
“He’s maybe a little too conservative,” said one corporate official, who asked not to be identified. “But he’d play well on TV.”
Opponents in Washington say Lungren’s aggressive conservatism doesn’t always make for good legislation.
Some of them work on Lungren’s own Judiciary Committee, the panel Lungren bitterly accuses of acting as a “Bermuda Triangle” for the tough law enforcement legislation he has proposed.
When Lungren maneuvered successfully to attach the 1984 crime package to a Democrat-favored spending bill, for example, Democrats complained that the legislation excluded key provisions they had supported.
The sweeping reform package included the much-touted provisions to allow seizure of drug profits, new sentencing procedures to reduce the disparity in punishment for defendants who commit similar crimes, bail regulations to allow pretrial detention of defendants considered dangerous to the community and provisions making it harder to use insanity as a defense.
Not as Strict
But its provisions against child pornography were not as strict as those adopted individually by the crime subcommittee, complained William J. Hughes (D-New Jersey), subcommittee chairman. Also, controls on so-called designer drugs were not as strong as the Drug Enforcement Administration had hoped for, nor was computer crime included, he said.
“I understand his (Lungren’s) frustration,” Hughes said. “I was frustrated myself. But I just felt the manner in which we were proceeding . . . was not an appropriate way to deal with the myriad of issues there, and we ended up with a work product that did not reflect the hearings and the very orderly process we had worked on. . . . That’s not the kind of legislation that we should be turning out.”
“Frankly,” Lungren counters, “I think that’s self-serving on the part of those who say we could have had a better package. How could they say that, when for 16 years, four different administrations attempted to get significant crime legislation, and none were successful, Democratic and Republican alike?”
Irked With His Actions
Similarly, opponents of the immigration reform package have been irked with Lungren’s actions, which they describe as unfailingly supportive of agricultural interests.
“We really resent that he is taking this on as a suburban representative,” said Dolores Huerta, a founder and first vice president of the United Farm Workers of America.
“I don’t think he’s doing anything for his constituents, and I don’t think his constituents would be particularly happy if they knew what he’s doing,” she said. “He talks about how all these people are coming in and taking your jobs, while at the same time he’s supporting a guest worker program that would bring in 350,0000 (alien) workers that would displace the already unemployed farm workers we have in California.”
“That’s funny,” Lungren said. “I was at the Republican state convention in San Diego and berated by someone for 20 minutes who said the word was out I was against the growers because I supported employer sanctions.”
In fact, Lungren added, he is the first ranking Republican on the committee that deals with immigration issues to come from California since 1954.
East Coast Problem
“If you look at immigration as an issue, it has been the problems of those from the East Coast. Everyone was still viewing immigration in the context of Ellis Island. Of people’s first view of America being the Statue of Liberty. Of the great influx from Europe. The Congress was about, in my judgment, 20 to 30 years behind reality.
“They had very little understanding or appreciation of the immigration impact on Southern California, of the fact that our border with Mexico had become the most heavily traveled for legal migration, and, when you add illegal migration, probably the most heavily traveled.”
Huerta and Lungren tangled a few months ago when she testified before the immigration subcommittee about a deputy agriculture secretary’s alleged record of abuses against farm workers working for him in Northern California.
Demanded Testimony Halt
Lungren, outraged, demanded that her testimony be halted and erased from the record, arguing it was “patently unfair to come up here and attack someone’s credibility.”
Congressmen John Bryant (D-Texas) and Howard L. Berman (D-Studio City) said she should be allowed to continue, and Lungren at one point stood up quickly. Some observers said he began to pull at his sleeves, looking for all the world like he was ready for a fight. Lungren says he was just expressing “righteous indignation"--and getting ready to leave.
“I got up to leave, and I realized that if I actually left, the way the room was constructed, I would have to walk by everybody with Bryant being on the end, and people would assume I was going to do just that--punch him out,” Lungren said. “So I sat down.”
“Dan has this problem of being a rebel without a cause,” says Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), “and perhaps getting mad and getting strident. Getting so mad he can’t abide the system anymore. I think people were impressed by his work on the immigration bill because, in that instance, Dan showed what he could do when he decides to do it as part of his agenda.”
But Lungren hasn’t always had an agenda, Fazio said, often because he “hasn’t been in a position” to have one.
“He’s frustrated by his basic position in the minority,” Fazio said. “He essentially is a young guy who wishes he were in the majority because he has things he wants to do.”
DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE Population: 525,909 Republicans: 51.2% Democrats: 38.6% Declined to state and small parties: 10.2% Household income (mean): $29,319 Families with income above $50,000/year: $23,314 Population below poverty level: 28,508 Asians/Pacific Islanders: 6% Spanish origin: 7% Blacks: 1% Whites: 89% Others: 1% (Population totals more then 100% because official U.S. Census statisitics include some people in more than one category. For example, there is some overlap between blacks and people of Spanish origin.) Foreign born: 57,713 Median age: 33 Primary industry: Durable manufacturingPrimary occupation: Clerical, Craft/Repair, Assemblers Government employment: 39,014 Federal contracts (in billions,1984): 33 Households recieving: --Social Security: 41,141 Households recieving: --Public Assistance 9,095 Population under 24 Completed 4 or more years of college: 95,095 Single-parent households: 11,771 Six or more in household: 7,523 Live in rented housing: 171,717 Live in owner-occupied housing: 346,214 Rep. Daniel Lungren Age: 39 (born Sept 22, 1946 in Long Beach, Calif.) Family: Married to Barbara Kolls; 3 children Time in Congress: 1978 to present. District office: 555 E. Ocean Blvd. Suite 505, Long Beach, Calif., 90802, (213) 436-9133 42nd District includes: Palos Verdes Hills, Long Beach, Torrance, Seal Beach, Rossmoor, Huntington Beach, Cypress, Los Alimitos and part of Westminster.