Election ’88 Orange County : 2 Free-Thinkers Square Off in 42nd Congressional Race : Reagan Follower Has a Libertarian Past

Times Staff Writer

GOP congressional candidate Dana Rohrabacher is a man of many contrasts.

Rohrabacher, the odds-on favorite to become the next congressman from the 42nd District, 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 Cal State Long Beach and as a young adult, Rohrabacher acknowledges, he was an outspoken advocate of Libertarian positions, including support for legalization of 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.

Rohrabacher is so confident of victory over Democrat Guy Kimbrough of Huntington Beach and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Richard D. Rose of Long Beach that he plans to send only one mailer before the Nov. 8 election. He also intends to run ads on local cable television stations. Republicans make up 52.4% of the district’s registered voters; Democrats make up 37.1%.

The 41-year-old-candidate would not say whether he had ever used marijuana when asked last week in an interview.


“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. 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.”

Little Known

Rohrabacher, who now lives in a Lomita apartment, 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).

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 and one-time associate, former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. 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.


Reclassified 1Y

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.

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 Cal State Long Beach 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.

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 than I was when I was a 21-year-old.”


He said that while 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.

Nonetheless, Rohrabacher has received financial support for his 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.

Enjoy Discourse

“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.

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.”

But on abortion, Rohrabacher said that, after much soul-searching, he has decided that he would support a constitutional amendment banning it.

Rohrabacher opposes mandatory school prayer, saying that decision should also be “left up to local parents and school boards.”

Favors Death Penalty

He favors the death penalty and opposes gun control.

Rohrabacher said he supports offshore oil drilling 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 readily 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.