Toward the end of the 1988 session of the Legislature, a bipartisan group of senators and Assembly members set up a meeting to discuss a proposed increase in the state gasoline tax. It was not expected to be the friendliest of gatherings, and the participants needed someone to chair the meeting who could keep the guns off the table.
The choice: state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), known around the Statehouse for--in no particular order--his joviality, his knowledge of the legislative system, his legendary fund-raising abilities and his seemingly ever-expanding girth.
"Campbell, by his personality, can keep those kinds of bipartisan meetings from getting nasty," said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach).
That reputation has helped make Campbell a solid favorite to win a fourth term in the 31st District and turn back the challenge of Democrat Janice Graham of Laguna Hills.
In fact, he is such an overwhelming favorite that he shows no hesitation about discussing other political challenges he sees in his future, looking beyond Tuesday's election.
The 31st District takes in parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties and includes Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Industry, Rowland Heights, Walnut, West Covina, a portion of Covina, the southeast side of Whittier and from Brea south to Mission Viejo in Orange County.
So far this year, Campbell, 53, has raised campaign contributions of more than $400,000, much of which he has used to pay off debts from his unsuccessful 1986 bid to become state controller. When that debt is retired, Campbell said in a recent interview, he will consider another try at statewide office. He has his eye on 1990--and on the office of governor, lieutenant governor or treasurer.
But while Campbell is looking toward higher office, Graham says he is vulnerable now.
"If you were an employer, would you hire someone who was absent 31% of the time, who did not show up for 54% of the company meetings?" said Graham, referring, respectively, to Campbell's attendance for floor votes and committee votes in 1988. "In 1986," she added, "he didn't vote on one environmental bill."
Replied Campbell: "Anybody who's been in a leadership position--their voting record may not be as high as someone who's able to be on the floor every day or every committee and not working on anything else."
Graham, 51, a New York native who moved to California less than 3 years ago, characterized Campbell as a senator "who's been there far too long."
She agrees with women's rights advocates who have chastised Campbell for the way he has handled an annual women's conference that he sponsors. In 1987 alone, the conference paid about $165,000 to Campbell's wife, Margene, and an aide, Karen L. Smith, whose company helps organize it. Graham also is unhappy about the Small Business Administration's co-sponsorship of the conference and the subsidies it has provided in recent years.
Critical of Graham
"I think what he did was a blatant misuse of his position," Graham said. She also criticized "the misuse of SBA funds that are not for the purpose of a conference where his wife and an aide make a profit. Those funds are for small businesses, not Sen. Campbell. I think he's way out of bounds on that."
The state Fair Political Practices Commission has been reviewing the conference for possible illegalities. An FPPC spokeswoman said the review is pending and declined to answer any other questions.
An Small Business Administration spokesman said the agency's possible involvement in future women's conferences hinges on a request from Campbell. So far, the spokesman said, Campbell has not asked for SBA involvement next year. Campbell said the SBA in fact may not be asked for such a direct role in next year's conference.
The conference, which has attracted as many as 14,000 women, offers an array of career tips and self-awareness seminars. In addition, exhibitors provide information on such things as hair-styling and cosmetics. Speakers have included Oprah Winfrey and Jihan Sadat, widow of the former Egyptian president.
In a move that may help to deflect the controversy, Smith is leaving Campbell's office at the end of the year, the senator said, to pursue organizing such conferences full time.
In addition to the women's conference, Campbell has been touched by other controversies. Several years ago, he sponsored legislation for--and described himself as a "friend" of--former Anaheim fireworks magnate Patrick Moriarty, who pleaded guilty in 1985 to mail fraud after being accused of attempting to corrupt public officials. Campbell was not linked to those allegations. He also has received numerous financial contributions from the City of Industry, for which he has pushed a number of bills. The city's founder, James Stafford, was sentenced in 1985 on various charges relating to kickbacks from contractors. Again, Campbell was not personally linked to the allegations.
'Born Under Right Sign'
Without commenting on the particulars of the various controversies, Assemblyman Ferguson said of Campbell: "The effect may have been disastrous to some other politicians, but it hasn't been to Bill Campbell. Some people can stub their toe and their life gets destroyed, and some can be slammed and banged around and it never affects them. Campbell is no newcomer to newspaper headlines, and it doesn't seem to affect his constituents and it doesn't affect his effectiveness as a legislator. I don't know why that is--it's like they call Reagan the Teflon President. Some guys are just born under the right sign."
Married and the father of three daughters, Campbell said the criticism of the women's conference is politically motivated.
"I don't see it as a problem, in all honesty," he said. "I see it as an opportunity to provide a tremendous women's conference. The question is, could anybody else do that? I don't know the answer to that, but why should I change a successful conference merely because the people responsible for the conference happen to work for me or be married to me? One of the things we try to do at the conference is to teach women who have skills they may have developed in the community or home or whatever to take and market those skills. Karen and Margene are excellent examples of why the conference is successful."
The conference's opponents, however, argue that Campbell--through his wife's involvement--benefits financially from his own conference. "When you say, 'Do I profit from it?', indirectly, yes, I do profit from it," Campbell said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. But why the attack on Karen and Margene?"
A Pennsylvania native, Campbell was elected to the California Assembly in 1966 from a predominantly Democratic district in Los Angeles County. He served four assembly terms (interrupted by an unsuccessful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors race in 1972) before being elected to the Senate in 1976. Although he and associates say he once was an ideologue of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, he has developed a reputation for being able to work with Democratic opposition.
Ousted From Position
In 1983, a group of conservatives ousted Campbell from his position as Senate GOP leader. But he professes not to care about losing the leadership post, saying his various committee assignments and Statehouse tenure give him all the clout he needs.
Indeed, Campbell was tapped in 1987 to serve as co-chairman--with U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove)--of George Bush's presidential campaign in California. In that role, Campbell said, he is spending "a lot of time" campaigning for the vice president.
Campbell, whose prodigious waistline has many of his friends concerned about his health, has also shown a prodigious ability to raise money. His campaign contributions for his current race list donors such as Abbott Labs of Chicago; Exxon of Houston; Cyanimid Citizens Action Committee in Washington, D.C.; NutraSweet Co. of Skokie, Ill.; Oxy USA of Tulsa, and the Pfizer Inc. of New York.
"California's a big state," Campbell said. "We tend to forget that. California's the largest state (by population) in the nation, the sixth-largest economy in the world. We have people who do business in California who are located in other states and in other nations, and they have an interest in what goes on here."
Graham has another view of Campbell's vast contacts. "I chased his record all the way to the late '70s," she said. "His voting record was quite good. He hit rock bottom when he lost the controller's race (in 1986). He lost power and standing in the Senate. He became a lobbyist, not a legislator."
Asked whom he lobbied for, she said: "For anyone who gives him the money--insurance companies, gambling interests, oil companies, the tobacco industry."
Charges Against Campbell
Charges of poor Senate attendance and special-interest legislation were the same charges leveled against Campbell in his 1984 Senate race, which he won with 75% of the vote. He has said he introduces only legislation he believes in and does not refuse to introduce bills just because someone contributed to his campaign.
As for the large amounts of money he raises, Campbell said: "Would she (Graham) not raise $400,000 if she could?"
Graham is married and the mother of five children. In New York, she was a high school English teacher for 15 years and later operated a bed-and-breakfast inn in North Carolina for three years. Her only previous try for public office was an unsuccessful bid in 1981 for a New York Assembly seat. For her race against Campbell, Graham has raised about $8,100.
She said her top legislative priorities would be to provide more child-care facilities, work on a pluralistic solution to the area's traffic problems and cut off an impending water problem in the state by giving more clout to the California Water Board. The board could "negotiate and actually mandate that certain water districts cooperate with each other," she said. "The time is now, and we should stop fighting our own Civil War when it comes to water and recognize it as a finite commodity instead of fighting with each other."
Graham is a strong supporter of feminist issues. She said California should be prepared to add its name to states ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.
Campbell said he's hoping to have the remaining debt from his 1986 controller's race--which he said is about $70,000--paid off by year's end. He said his future political plans hinge on various events. If Gov. George Deukmejian doesn't run again in 1990, Campbell said, he may run for governor.
"I ran a statewide race in 1986," Campbell said. "I received 3 million votes and lost. I never thought I'd receive over 3 million votes and lose an election. . . . I had a taste of it. We spent a couple million dollars trying to get name identification, and I think we have good name I.D. in the state, and I'd have to build on that."
He listed among his most significant recent legislative achievements bills that would shift money from counties to cities with little or no property tax revenue, that would expedite relief for earthquake-ravaged cities, that would increase penalties for drunken drivers, and that would create a task force for funding research into spinal cord injuries.
Campbell also has called for an increase in the state gasoline tax, saying it is necessary to alleviate worsening traffic problems. He said he has not settled on a specific increase in the current 9-cent-a-gallon tax but added that it may end up in the 4-cent to 6-cent range, depending, in part, "on what we think the public will accept."