In the harsh light of morning, the shopper strolling out of the Giant supermarket in Hollywood looked pleasant enough as Tom Larkin approached with campaign literature. It wasn't until Larkin asked for his vote that the shopper's jaw suddenly tightened and his eyes bugged out.
"Do you know that Jesus Christ is your Lord and personal Savior?!" the shopper demanded as he leaned in unusually close to Larkin, his voice full of fire and brimstone.
"Uhhhhhhhhh . . . yeah," Larkin answered. "Sure."
Most voters aren't quite so confrontational. But Larkin, who is involved in a quixotic quest to oust powerful state Sen. David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), has learned that it's not always easy getting people to take him seriously.
Besides trying to pass muster with a fundamentalist, the Republican gay activist has been kicked off the front steps of a health club where he tried to distribute his literature and skewered in gay press coverage of his race against Roberti, who is popular with gays.
Yet that hasn't slowed his energetic pace. Despite the expectation of a Roberti landslide Nov. 8, Larkin continues to pound the campaign trail seven days a week, 12 hours a day, determined to convince the apparently disinterested populace in Roberti's 23rd state Senate district that it's time for a change.
"This is a massive job," Larkin said. "But I have more than a month to get out and let people know what I'm doing. And I think I'm making headway."
If nothing else, Larkin is making himself happy. The 49-year-old commercial real estate broker with the perpetual smile and the disarming sense of humor said he thoroughly enjoys canvassing and appearing before political clubs in the district, which includes the Hollywood-Fairfax-West Hollywood area.
The fact that Roberti has more than $600,000 in campaign funds compared to his $50,000 doesn't seem to overly concern Larkin. Nor does the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district 2 to 1, or that Roberti has served in office for 22 years, while Larkin is a newcomer.
The self-described political junkie lost his only previous campaign, a 1986 race for the West Hollywood City Council. But he has established himself as a serious activist by serving as chairman of an environmental group called the Save Our Parks Alliance, on GOP committees and as a board member of the National Gay Rights Advocates.
In his speeches around the district, Larkin tells voters that Senate leader Roberti has forgotten the people back home. He blames Roberti for rising auto insurance rates, for public school problems and for poverty and unemployment. And he paints Roberti as an extreme liberal, while calling himself moderate.
Larkin said that he would establish a bipartisan commission to draft reform legislation. He would also disband the Los Angeles Unified School District in order to make schools more independent, would toughen laws against violent street gangs and would work for a policy of "managed" commercial growth.
He said that much of his campaign is targeted at minorities, who represent about 30% of the district, and gays. Larkin has run advertisements in 23 community newspapers, including those that go to Koreans and Filipinos.
And his Sunset Boulevard campaign office, which sits next to the Seventh Veil Totally Nude Live Nude Theatre in Hollywood, is filled with clippings of Larkin's notices in various foreign language newspapers.
Larkin conceded that he started out like most Republican challengers running in the Westside's solidly Democratic districts--as a sacrificial lamb hoping to win influence within the party. But he said his enthusiasm has grown as the campaign has progressed.
"Six months ago we wanted to win the primary because we wanted the (Republican) central committee seats and this was a way to get them," Larkin said. "But in the past month that's changed. I think we have a chance."
Larkin said that the Republican Party is gradually taking notice of his efforts. GOP officials aren't taking him seriously enough to actually target the district, but the state GOP has given Larkin some $22,000 to play with.
Robert Whitmore, the Los Angeles County Republican Party chairman, said Larkin has impressed local party leaders. He credits Larkin with registering "thousands" of new Republicans. He also said that Larkin does his homework, attends the right functions and works hard for his support.
Chances for Success
"He takes it all very seriously," Whitmore said. "He is approaching this campaign as if he can win it. I don't know whether he can or not, but when a candidate takes a race seriously there is always a chance."
While Larkin hasn't made a big deal of his gay rights activities, Whitmore said that GOP leaders are aware of it. The GOP leader said he does not see that as a drawback among moderate and conservative Republicans. "In today's age I guess you don't really pay much attention to it," Whitmore said.
However, the gay press has taken notice of it. In its most recent issue, Frontiers Magazine questions whether it was proper for Larkin to accept campaign money from a Republican caucus headed by state Sen. John Doolittle (R-Citrus Heights), whom the magazine describes as a homophobe because of his conservative stand on AIDS issues.
Others say Larkin's candidacy has created a real dilemma for gays who are being forced to choose between Larkin, who is one of their own, and Roberti, who has been highly supportive of them.
"It's a real mixed bag in the community," said Frontiers publisher Bob Craig. "Basically, Roberti has been very good to our community. But Tom (Larkin) has also been very active. . . . Our goal as a community is equality. And under that premise it's possible to say that both are acceptable."
Effect of 'Gay Factor'
Larkin said that he isn't worried about the "gay factor" in the campaign. "I'm openly gay," he said. "I don't think it's an issue, and I don't think it should be an issue. A lot of members of the gay community might like to have a gay representative, but I'm running to represent the entire district."
While they are aware of Larkin's busy campaign schedule, Roberti's representatives say they are not particularly concerned about him. Steven M. Glazer, the senator's spokesman, said voters know that Roberti has been an active and effective legislator.
Glazer said Roberti is making the usual rounds of the district this campaign season. "We have a very positive message to present," Glazer said. Roberti himself was out of town and unavailable for comment. His staff declined to say where he was.
As he makes his political rounds, Larkin is telling voters that Roberti is away from home far too often, and that it's time for a fresh perspective.
Larkin said his ultimate desire is to force Roberti into a debate before the election, though he admitted that his friendly demeanor might not serve him so well.
"It's true," Larkin said. "I am very relaxed. It's hard for me to pound my fist and scream and shout. But I'm learning."