Showdown With a GOP Firebrand Builds in 38th District : Dornan Does Little Campaigning, Puts Emphasis on World Affairs

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) could be seen on TV recently seconding George Bush’s nomination at the GOP convention. He could also be seen on the tube comparing AIDS deaths to body counts in Vietnam and Korea and attacking the U.S. Conference of Bishops for its opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative.

But one place the flamboyant conservative is not often seen this year is the 38th Congressional District that he represents, according to Democrat Jerry Yudelson, Dornan’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election.

Dornan, 55, has not campaigned in the district recently except to hold a town hall forum three weeks ago that deteriorated into a shouting match with gay-rights activists.

Less than a month of campaigning remains. So far, no Dornan reelection signs are evident. A campaign office is only now being readied. No joint appearances with Yudelson are scheduled--except one televised debate to be aired on KOCE-TV, Channel 50, on Nov. 3.


Brian Bennett, Dornan’s press secretary, says Dornan does not take reelection for granted, but he acknowledges that Dornan’s strategy is to virtually ignore Yudelson inside the district, which includes Cerritos.

“There is no contest,” said Bennett, who is speaking for Dornan because the former fighter pilot and TV talk show host has refused to be interviewed about the election.

Bennett says Dornan is angry about continuing news coverage of the town hall meeting in which Dornan’s wife, Sallie, called one gay activist a “fag,” then said one of her brothers is gay and dying of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The brother, Douglas R. Hansen of San Diego, has denied being gay and passed a medical test arranged by The Times, which showed that he is not infected with the AIDS virus.


But while Dornan won’t discuss the Nov. 8 election in his district, he has been discussing it outside the district, in fund-raising letters sent to more than a million voters nationwide. By mistake, some of the letters have even landed in the mailboxes of well-known Democratic Party activists, such as Chris Townsend, assistant to developer and Democratic activist David Stein.

The strategy is vintage Dornan. Confident that he has a national as well as a local base of support among hard-core conservative Republicans and so-called Reagan Democrats, the crusader has opted for national exposure.

Some political observers believe that he has in mind a high-ranking Cabinet-level post in a Bush administration, perhaps in the area of national security or arms control, and then a run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Alan Cranston.

In the letters Dornan has sent nationwide, he says that, once again, liberals are out to get him. He pleads for $200,000. He advertises an Oct. 15 campaign event in Newport Beach, outside his district, that features former Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. Coincidentally, Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) will be stumping for Yudelson in Garden Grove on the same day.

According to mandatory campaign finance reports, Dornan has spent more than $200,000 just for mailing lists and labels, using the professional services of conservative fund-raising and direct-mail specialist Richard Viguerie.

In the 18 months ended June 30, campaign reports show, Dornan collected $724,000 but spent more than $600,000 raising it. As of June 30, campaign reports show, Dornan had just $91,000 in cash on hand, a relatively small amount in a district that has seen rising Democratic voter registration, with a 50%-to-41% Democratic registration edge.

Bennett says most of the money has been spent for “prospecting,” a term political experts use to describe big, targeted mail campaigns that, once the response is analyzed, clearly identify the most likely sources of continuing financial support for the near future.

Political observers say Dornan’s strategy also reflects his preoccupation with national and foreign affairs--and a strong desire to let his aides and members of his family take care of political business in the district.


Yudelson accuses Dornan of neglecting constituent service.

After defeating Rep. Jerry M. Patterson (D-Garden Grove) in 1984, Dornan thought he had to prove that he could surpass Patterson’s excellent reputation for constituent service, so he succeeded in milking the federal bureaucracy for every cent he could get in the way of grants for the cities in his district, says James McConnell, who is the county’s paid lobbyist in Washington.

Dornan may have had less personal contact with city officials recently, McConnell and other observers say, but if so, they don’t think it has hurt constituent service.

Santa Ana Mayor Dan Young, a Democrat-turned-Republican, praised Dornan recently for speeding the delivery to the city of money seized in drug cases. And Garden Grove Mayor J. Tilman Williams, a Democrat who supports Yudelson, says Dornan was instrumental in obtaining federal aid to rehabilitate the city’s Buena Clinton slum.

“Nobody ever expected Dornan to pay attention to his district,” says veteran Newport Beach-based political consultant Harvey Englander. “He’s always been more interested in foreign affairs, especially aid to the Contras and similar issues.”

Englander credits Bennett, Dornan’s chief of staff and press secretary, with having made Dornan’s district and Washington offices very responsive to constituents’ needs.

Dornan has traveled to North Vietnam in search of GIs missing in action; to Syria to try to get hostages released; to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Turkey, Thailand, South Korea and Ethiopia, just to name a few foreign destinations.

“His duty, as he (Dornan) evidently sees it, is to dramatize the causes he believes in and to goad the opposition,” writes Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa in the 1988 Almanac of American Politics.


In 1976, Dornan was elected to Congress from a Santa Monica-area district and held the seat until reapportionment persuaded him to unsuccessfully seek the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in 1982. The following year, Dornan was under consideration for an arms-control post but was blocked by a Republican congressman who feared that Dornan’s rhetoric would cost the Reagan Administration votes in Congress.

In 1985 interviews of House members by The Times, most said Dornan’s militant speeches were well watched, at least, and conceded that one or two had persuaded several House members to switch their votes on legislation.

Indeed, whenever Dornan rises to speak on the House floor, Congress members who are in their offices have a tendency to look at their TV monitors. Sometimes there are fireworks.

Last March, for example, Dornan’s scathing speech on Nicaragua was abruptly cut off when he exceeded a one-minute limit. “Wait a minute,” Dornan shouted, “people are dying because of this chamber!”

A brawl nearly started on the House floor.

Dornan is so concerned about world events and the election of Vice President Bush, political observers say, that he views a reelection contest as a necessary nuisance, a distraction from his real mission.

Peace and Freedom Party nominee Frank German of Long Beach, a retired teacher, and Libertarian Bruce McKay of Garden Grove, an engineer and scientist, are also seeking to unseat Dornan.