GOP congressional candidate Dana Rohrabacher is a man of many contrasts.
The odds-on favorite to become the next congressman from the 42nd District, Rohrabacher says he is a conservative Republican, but he has a long history of sympathy for the Libertarian Party’s causes of personal freedom and limited government.
As a student activist at Long Beach State and as a young adult, Rohrabacher acknowledges that he was an outspoken advocate of Libertarian positions, including support for decriminalizing drugs.
He remained actively involved in Libertarian circles throughout the 1970s, and was an editorial writer for the Orange County Register, which often espouses Libertarian positions.
When he went to work for President Reagan as a speech writer 7 1/2 years ago, Rohrabacher switched his voter registration from Libertarian to Republican and disavowed his support for decriminalizing drugs.
Today, as he campaigns for Congress in the district--which hugs the coast from Torrance to Huntington Beach--Rohrabacher portrays himself as a “Reagan Republican.” His campaign signs, literature and speeches reinforce his association with Reagan.
During the June primary campaign, his mailers featured a glowing testimonial letter from the President and numerous pictures of Rohrabacher and Reagan in the Oval Office and aboard Air Force One.
Confident of Victory
With that kind of backing, Rohrabacher, who lives in a Lomita apartment, is expected to defeat Democrat Guy Kimbrough of Huntington Beach and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Richard D. Rose of Long Beach.
Rohrabacher is so confident of victory in the district--where 52% of the voters are Republicans--that he plans to send only one mailer before the Nov. 8 election. He also intends to run ads on local cable television stations.
The candidate, 41, would rather discuss his speech-writing for the President’s crusade for a drug-free America than his one-time advocacy of decriminalizing drug use. He would not say whether he had ever used marijuana when asked last week in an interview. Both of Rohrabacher’s opponents said they have tried marijuana.
“I don’t think that any mistakes that I made in my distant youth are relevant and anything in this area . . . was distant youth,” Rohrabacher said.
“Obviously, there is no one who is running for public office who is perfect because no one is perfect,” he added. “I think that what is more relevant is how I stand on these particular issues and . . . what I’ve done concerning this social problem as a responsible adult as compared to any indiscretion that I might have had as a young person.”
The former presidential speech writer was all but unknown in the sprawling district when he returned home to the Palos Verdes Peninsula last March to run for the congressional seat being given up by Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach).
Endorsed by North
Although his campaign tipped off reporters to damaging information about his chief primary opponent, Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, Rohrabacher trailed in private campaign polls until his friend, former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, appeared at campaign events a week before the June primary.
With North--a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal and the darling of some conservatives--at his side, Rohrabacher won national attention and went on to victory in a crowded field of eight GOP candidates, winning 35% of the vote.
“I owe Ollie a lot and I appreciate him,” Rohrabacher said. “He turned what would have been a very small victory into a landslide.”
The son of a retired Marine officer, Rohrabacher favors a strong defense--a major source of jobs in the district--and is a staunch supporter of the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua and other self-proclaimed “freedom fighters” around the world. Rohrabacher did not serve in the military.
Selective Service records indicate that shortly after he graduated from college in June, 1969, Rohrabacher was classified 1A--available for military service.
But in February, 1970, he was found unfit for service at his pre-induction physical.
“I brought some X-rays in and they looked at them and decided I was 1Y,” Rohrabacher said, explaining that he had sustained a hip injury while playing high school football. He was reclassified 1Y--available only in times of national emergency.
Opposes the Draft
The GOP candidate said he opposes the military draft and supports an all-volunteer Army. “I’ve always been against the draft,” he said. “However, the fact that I had a 1Y doesn’t relate directly to my position on the draft.”
When he was a history student at Long Beach State in the late 1960s, Rohrabacher was active in politics and was “an ardent supporter of conservative and Libertarian causes,” according to a campus newspaper article published after he became a presidential speech writer in January, 1981.
At the college, Rohrabacher was a founding member of the Libertarian Supper Club and organized Future of Freedom conferences. His Libertarian activities continued later at USC, where he earned a master’s degree in American studies in January, 1976.
“For a couple years I was really an avid Libertarian,” Rohrabacher said. “I thought I had to be a 100-percenter. I had to be totally consistent. My whole life was centered around being consistent to some fundamental beliefs.”
But over time, he said, his political views have changed.
“If the Dana Rohrabacher who I was 20 years ago was running for Congress today, I wouldn’t even vote for him,” he said. “But the fact is I have matured a lot in the last 20 years and I hold different views on life and I’m a much more responsible person that I was when I was a 21-year-old.”
While he said there are still a lot of areas “where my beliefs coincide with what Libertarians believe in . . . I don’t feel a compulsion to be some kind of a consistent Libertarian now at all. On the issue of drugs, I have disagreed with them and I have all along during the Reagan Administration.” Rohrabacher called himself “one of the champions within the White House of the President’s crusade for a drug-free America.”
Dr. Carlton Turner, former director of the White House Drug Abuse Policy Office and a Rohrabacher supporter, agrees with that assessment. During his 7 years as a White House speech writer, Rohrabacher played “a significant role” in pushing for stronger presidential statements against drug abuse, Turner said .
Turner said he had “many discussions” with Rohrabacher in the White House “about his Libertarian views.” But Turner recalls that during those conversations Rohrabacher said he could not agree with the Libertarian view on decriminalizing drugs.
Rohrabacher said: “Whatever indiscretion that I may have committed as a young person in my distant past certainly did nothing but bolster my commitment to try to change social attitudes on drugs in the United States.”
Nonetheless, Rohrabacher has received financial support for the congressional campaign from Libertarians locally and across the country--including noted economist Milton Friedman and the Reason Foundation, a Santa Monica-based Libertarian organization that helped pay for a fund-raising mailer.
This month’s issue of Reason magazine, which features a cover story entitled, “If Drugs were Legal,” contains two photographs of Rohrabacher at a recent party celebrating the magazine’s 20th anniversary.
Views on Libertarianism
“The fact is that I still enjoy the intellectual discourse with Libertarians,” Rohrabacher said. “I have certain things where my beliefs have run parallel. I think they have done a lot of work on individual rights and on privatization of government services, a lot of studies of the free-enterprise system and how you can reduce taxes. I think that is very important. I have other areas where I disagree with them.”
Rohrabacher embraces such Libertarian concepts as turning over the U.S. Postal Service, the air traffic control system and possibly the National Weather Service to private industry.
His basic philosophy about individual freedom also reflects Libertarian ideology. When it comes to sex among consenting adults, for example, “People’s private behavior is their own business,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
On pornography, Rohrabacher said: “Adults have a right to read what they want to read” as long as children are “neither exposed to nor exploited by pornography.”
He believes that such issues as regulation of prostitution and control of adult bookstores should be “left to the local community and reflect local community standards.”
But on abortion, Rohrabacher said that after much soul-searching, he has decided that he would support a constitutional amendment banning it.
A ‘Practical Person’
Rohrabacher opposes mandatory school prayer, saying that decision should also be “left up to local parents and school boards.”
He favors the death penalty and opposes gun control.
“I’m a practical person. I’m involved in politics,” Rohrabacher said. “I tend to be (inclined) toward less government. I tend in the direction towards people having their destiny in their own hands, toward people keeping more of what they earn. I tend in those directions.”
On offshore oil drilling, he said he supports it off Long Beach, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach, where platforms already exist. But he opposes opening up new areas to drilling off the Palos Verdes Peninsula and in Santa Monica Bay.
“You’ve got oil drilling in half the district already, so the decision there for any increased oil drilling would not have as dramatic an impact on the people of that local area and their property values as in Palos Verdes and the other side of the district where it is virgin territory,” Rohrabacher said.
As a member of Congress, he would consider drilling near the California coast on a case-by-case basis, he said. With proper safeguards, he said, he would support drilling on the outer continental shelf that was not visible from land.
Rohrabacher acknowledges that his approach to the issue may seem inconsistent.
“I’ve never claimed they were consistent. Do I have to be totally consistent? I don’t have to be totally consistent,” he said. “You do not have to have an all-or-nothing decision in terms of anything.”
In the long term, Rohrabacher said, he would like local communities to reap a share of the financial benefit from drilling and have a right to vote on future projects.
Image in Washington
At the White House, there are two distinctly different images of Rohrabacher.
One former White House staff member, who asked not to be identified, described the longtime speech writer as the “epitome of a California flake.” He said Rohrabacher had a reputation as “the resident eccentric” on the White House staff.
Another former Administration official said Rohrabacher was assigned to write diplomatic toasts rather than major policy addresses because of his disagreements with White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and others.
Rohrabacher bristled at both suggestions.
“I stepped on a lot of toes in 7 years,” he said. “I was not at all hesitant to champion what I considered to be the Reagan agenda and because of that I made a lot of people mad at me.”
Rohrabacher said he “worked on scores of major speeches. So don’t let anybody tell you that I was relegated to secondary speeches. I just wasn’t.”
He did say he has written “a lot of the President’s diplomatic remarks . . . his toasts and welcoming remarks, but those are not frivolous sets of remarks. Most of those remarks are heavy on policy.”
Another former member of the Reagan administration staff said Rohrabacher was “a real character” at the White House and will “probably be a colorful member of Congress. He takes pride in being a free spirit.”
Richard D. Rose
He believes the key local issue is nuclear arms aboard Navy ships in Long Beach Harbor, saying: “It definitely makes us a target.”
No matter who is elected President in November, he says, “there has to be a revenue increase to deal with the deficit.”
Once an advocate of decriminalization, he now declares himself “one of the champions . . . for a drug-free America.”
A PROFILE OF THE 42ND DISTRICT
Party Registration, 1988
Republican 165,322 52.4% Democrat 117,103 37.1% Independents 27,218 8.6% American Independent 2,975 .9% Libertarian 1,748 .6% Peace and Freedom 768 .2% Other Parties 237 .1% Total 315,391 100.0%
White 469,468 89.3% Asian 29,611 5.6% Other 20,026 3.8% Black 6,790 1.3% Total 525,895 100.0%
*The 1980 Census does not include a separate category for Latinos, who make up 7.4% or 38,924, of the district’s population.
Torrance, Lomita, Palos Verdes Peninsula, San Pedro, Long Beach, Signal Hill, Seal Beach, Sunset Beach, Huntington Beach, Los Alamitos, Cypress, La Palma
Guy Kimbrough, community college instructor
Republican: Dana Rohrabacher, former White House speechwriter
Peace and Freedom: Richard D. Rose, community activist
Sources: U.S. Census, California secretary of state