ELECTIONS ’88 / ORANGE COUNTY : Low-Key Style Aids Packard in Campaign for a 4th Term
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) is not a prime-time kind of politician.
With an impact on the Nielsen ratings that barely reaches beyond his 43rd Congressional District, this homespun lawmaker is not a likely prospect for many TV talk show guest spots.
That is a reputation that might harden the arteries of many an ambitious lawmaker seeking higher office.
But not Packard, who is running for a fourth term in the 43rd District, which straddles the boundary between Orange and San Diego counties. A dentist and former mayor of Carlsbad, Packard’s methodical, diligent attention to his constituents and their needs has paid handsome dividends where it counts most--the ballot box.
In a district tailor-made for his brand of conservatism, the 57-year-old Packard was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, when he became only the fourth candidate in U.S. history to win a write-in campaign for Congress.
A confident Packard, who intentionally avoids partisan scrapes or ideological battles over issues like AIDS testing, is being pressed by a more aggressive challenger this time around in Democrat Howard Greenebaum. A retired Maryland businessman who moved to north San Diego County three years ago, Greenebaum, 58, faces an uphill battle in the district, which includes El Toro, Mission Viejo, Coto de Caza, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and much of northern San Diego County.
Attempting to paint Packard as a smug bureaucrat befriended by special-interest groups, Greenebaum has tirelessly worked the district from north to south, staging press conferences and events to reach voters before Nov. 8.
But Packard’s congressional credentials are solid, political observers say, and his support is stronger than ever, due in large part to a lopsided GOP edge in voter registration within the district. Districtwide, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 55.8% to 30.8%. In the Orange County end of the district, the margin is even greater, more than 2 to 1.
Politically and personally, Packard seems an ideal fit for the rapidly growing district, where he has lived since the late 1950s. Married, with seven children, Packard is a Mormon who talks of family values. His traditional views extend to politics, where he has rarely broken ranks with President Reagan since he first stepped foot in Congress after 19 years as a locally elected official in his hometown of Carlsbad.
Conservative organizations generally give Packard high marks. He has a lifetime rating of 89% from the American Conservative Union, a Washington-based group that rates House members by their votes on selected issues. Of the 20 bills the group monitored in 1987, Packard voted “the wrong way” only twice, said Daniel Casey, executive director of the union, one of the nation’s oldest conservative lobbying groups.
In both cases, Packard joined dozens of Republicans to override Reagan vetoes of an $88-billion highway funding bill and a $20-billion extension of the Clean Water Act.
“Ron Packard is a low-key, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of congressman. He’s an asset to the conservative movement,” Casey said. Referring to Packard’s support of the two presidential veto overrides, Casey added: “You really can’t fault him for going against the president. Frankly, if you’re a congressman from California, you can’t go around being against clean water and more highways.”
Traffic Frustrates Constituents
In fact, Packard talks proudly of his role in pushing both pieces of legislation, particularly the highway bill, which he helped shepherd as a member of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. As Packard’s staff hears almost daily from frustrated constituents, traffic in some parts of the district--one of the fastest developing in California--is nearing gridlock.
New highway construction and widening of existing roads is the most immediate solution, Packard said, and the five-year highway bill, which became law in March, 1987, will provide $88 billion for projects nationwide. The bulk of the money will come from the federal Highway Trust Fund.
“As long as I can remember, we’ve been a donor state, putting more money into the federal highway fund than we take out,” Packard said recently. “It’s about time we got our fair share.”
Among the highway projects in the 43rd District that may benefit are the proposed San Joaquin Hills tollway, which would run from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano, and California 78, a heavily traveled, four-lane road slated for widening that runs east-west between Oceanside and Escondido in northern San Diego County.
Packard also differs from the Reagan Administration on offshore oil and natural gas exploration, opposing any such activity in local waters. He said there are “other areas in the U.S. less objectionable” than the Southern California coast for energy exploration.
Sounding a rare sour note about the president, Packard is sharply critical of the administration’s handling of the U.S. space program. A member of the Space, Science and Technology Committee, Packard is a big booster of space exploration and said he has been “deeply frustrated and disappointed” by the lack of leadership from the White House on the issue.
“Space is one of the best investments we can make,” said Packard, adding that he will push for additional money for both the space shuttle and space station projects.
For the most part, however, Packard has voted the Reagan line, especially on fiscal matters. To solve the national deficit, Packard said, Congress must adopt a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and give the president line-item veto power.
Packard also supports continued aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, the so-called Star Wars defense program and a presidential pardon for Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who was indicted for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. He is staunchly opposed to raising taxes and supported the signing of the INF (intermediate-range nuclear weapons) treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Predictably, Packard receives very poor marks from liberal groups, such as the Washington-based Americans for Democratic Action, which gave him one of the lowest ratings for any House member last year. Of 25 bills tracked by the ADA in 1987, Packard voted with the group only once.
Packard, who said it took four years to learn the system, rarely misses a House vote. In 1987, he had one of the best voting attendance records among congressional members, voting on 97% of the 488 bills that came before the House, the Congressional Quarterly reported.
Steady and unemotional for the most part, Packard’s voice gains speed when asked about opening Camp Pendleton to joint use by military and commercial air traffic. Packard is protective of the 125,000-acre Marine base, which splits his district and is the Marine Corps’ largest infantry training camp.
Despite increasing pressure from regional and state officials, Packard bristles at the notion of “encroaching on the Marines’ mission” at Pendleton by building a regional airport there for commercial air traffic. Various regional planners suggest that Pendleton is one of the few remaining places where such a facility can be built to service the growing air travel needs of both southern Orange County and northern San Diego County.
The military opposes the idea, and Packard said that Pendleton “should not become a dumping ground for a regional airport, a jail or a toxic waste dump.”
Packard acknowledged, however, that he plans to ask the Marine Corps to allow a portion of the proposed Foothill corridor, a major highway that would run through the backcountry of southern Orange County to a point south of San Clemente, to be built on base property.
“Gridlock on the highways hurts and impacts those who live and work at Camp Pendleton as much as the rest of us,” Packard said.