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ELECTIONS ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 36 : Staker Makes an Issue of McClintock’s Combative Style

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After eight years of stirring up trouble in Sacramento, Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) has a minor problem of his own at home.

For the first time since he was elected in 1982, McClintock faces a Republican challenger in his safely Republican district. His opponent is making an issue of McClintock’s combative style that has bruised many of those who disagree with him.

“All of the Democratic assemblymen hate his guts and even a majority of Republicans dislike him,” said Kevin Staker, a Camarillo tax attorney who is challenging McClintock in the June 5 Republican primary.

Staker, a political newcomer, said McClintock has alienated the Republican leadership with an unsuccessful grab for power earlier this year. And, he said, McClintock cannot work with neighboring lawmakers to the benefit of the county.

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“The whole county of Ventura cries out for more state money but suffers because of his divisive influence,” he said.

McClintock denies that his combative style has hindered his effectiveness or hurt the county. The assemblyman also said he does not consider Staker’s campaign a serious threat.

“If what Mr. Staker says is true, I would not have gotten 25 bills through a Democratic-controlled Legislature last year,” McClintock said. “Nor would I have received 35 endorsements from my Republican colleagues in the state Legislature.”

In stark contrast to the incumbent, Staker has not received a single endorsement from a Republican leader or officeholder. He acknowledges that he is running a long-shot campaign, but says his spirits are lifted by private pledges of support from GOP leaders.

“I’ve talked to a whole slew of Republicans who say, ‘I’m glad you are running, and I hope you win,’ ” Staker said. “ ‘But I can’t publicly endorse you because, if McClintock wins, I’m in big trouble.’ ”

Staker got his first taste of politics as the leader of a Camarillo citizens group that formed to investigate the city’s sudden loss of $26.8 million. That start gave him the confidence to take on the incumbent in the 36th Assembly District, which stretches from Ventura to Thousand Oaks.

A Mormon bishop, Staker describes himself as a staunch conservative who agrees with McClintock on most issues. For the most part, his campaign focuses on McClintock’s negative style, he said.

“He goes beyond the issues and gets personal,” Staker said. “Once he called the County Board of Supervisors ‘a bunch of left-wing looney tunes.’ It’s counterproductive to get personal and call people names.”

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McClintock said his opponent is confusing political debate with personal acrimony.

He said he promised the voters to fight for change in Sacramento and follows that pledge into battle no matter who he runs up against. “There is a great deal of conflict and disagreement,” he said. “That is the nature of the political process.”

But McClintock’s bruising demeanor has left him somewhat of an outcast in the state Legislature.

“He is not very popular up here,” said Assemblyman Jack O’Connell (D-Carpinteria) in a telephone interview from Sacramento. Although their two districts intertwine in Ventura County, O’Connell said he has little to do with McClintock. “With Tom and I, it seems like we talk just when it is a crisis.”

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Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), whose district borders McClintock’s to the east, said she has received complaints from his constituents about how he has mistreated them.

“They were complaints that he had his mind made up, and he didn’t want to listen to them,” Wright said. She acknowledges that she has had her run-ins with McClintock over the past decade. Now, she tries to steer clear of him.

“He comes off as a brash young man,” she said. “It is the sound of his voice, and he is so intense, he always sounds like he is arguing with you.”

Last December, it was more than the tone of McClintock’s comments that offended four constituents who tried to persuade him to support government funding for abortion clinics.

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In the meeting, McClintock compared public-financed abortions for poor women to “providing scotch for the wino lying in the gutter.”

His constituents said they were left aghast that he used the analogy of pregnant women being addicted to abortions as winos are addicted to alcohol. The constituents, four Republican women, were so upset that they quoted McClintock in the newsletter of their group, the American Assn. of University Women.

“It was offensive on so many different levels,” said Marlene Alexander, president of the group’s Thousand Oaks branch. “That quote was seared in our minds. We all felt it was important for our members to know where he was coming from.”

McClintock was irritated by the newsletter, which, he said, quoted him out of context. The assemblyman said he made the analogy to counter the women’s argument that if the state does not provide abortions for the poor, it is denying them a choice.

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“I said that there are many things that the poor cannot afford,” McClintock said. “You would not suggest that because winos cannot afford quality scotch, that the government should provide it to them?”

Staker said he opposes government-financed abortions, but he disagrees with the way McClintock handled his constituents. “It is just another example of how his style hurts him,” he said. “That’s pretty strong language.”

Ventura County Supervisor Madge Schaefer, a Thousand Oaks Republican who has toyed with the idea of running against McClintock, said she believes that the conservative assemblyman has lost track of the real world.

“He has this caveman mentality,” she said. “The cavemen in Sacramento share the simple philosophy that life is black and white, and if you are conservative enough, you can solve all the world’s problems.”

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McClintock boasts that he has one of the highest records of voting “no” on Democratic proposals in the Assembly. He sees himself as a conservative reformer who must fight to lift the burden of government off the backs of the taxpayers.

“I don’t consider myself a bomb thrower,” he said. “I have been putting out conservative alternatives to the liberal tax-and-spend agenda.”

His most recent cause is defeating Proposition 111, which would raise taxes on gasoline to pay for road construction. A self-appointed spokesman for the opposition, McClintock contends that the measure sneaks open the door for more, unseen taxes.

In his view, every Republican supporter, including Gov. George Deukmejian, has sold out the conservative cause by supporting Prop. 111. If Prop. 111 passes, McClintock says, it will make “George Deukmejian the world record-holder for raising taxes in California.”

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Those are fighting words in most Republican circles. Those kinds of broadsides against Republican leaders have made it a rough year for the 33-year-old lawmaker.

Three months ago, McClintock was Republican whip, the fourth highest ranking position in the Republican leadership with a coveted desk on the Assembly floor close to the center of power.

But in February, McClintock failed in a bid to overthrow Assembly Republican leader Ross Johnson of La Habra and assume power. Since then he has been stripped of his leadership position, watched the leadership fire sympathetic aides and banish him to an isolated seat in the back row of the Assembly floor.

McClintock is planning his next challenge. He claims that he was three votes shy of the 17 votes he needed to unseat Johnson and assume power. With the election and other political maneuvering, he predicts that he soon will make another bid to become the most powerful Republican in the Assembly.

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Johnson doesn’t believe that McClintock ever had more than a vote or two to oppose him and dismisses the threat of any future challenge. “Tom is a young man and has the enthusiasm of youth,” Johnson said. “But don’t hold your breath.”

McClintock’s approach to politics doesn’t surprise his colleagues anymore. Yet some wonder if he will ever soften. “Tom has his set ways, which are too set for a young man,” Wright said. “But hopefully, now that he is a dad, he’ll start to mellow.” McClintock’s wife delivered a baby two months ago.

As the incumbent, McClintock is expected to coast to an easy victory in the primary election, Republican leaders say. But many are watching to see if Staker makes inroads into McClintock’s GOP support, which would be an indication that the assemblyman might be vulnerable to a stronger challenge in 1992.

Campaign finance statements filed last week show that McClintock has raised $67,400 compared to Staker’s $9,178.

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McClintock anticipated that his campaign would net an additional $15,000 from a fund-raising dinner held Thursday with Ed Rollins, co-chairman of the Republican National Party, as the keynote speaker.

As for the underdog, Staker is counting on volunteers to help him perform his Election Day miracle. Most of the troops, he said, are friends and members of his Mormon Church in Camarillo. As bishop, Staker is their leader, responsible for the material and spiritual welfare of the church’s 500 members.

Staker predicts that only about 10,000 voters will make it to the polls June 5 in a year without the draw of a presidential contest. “It’s a long shot, I know,” Staker said. “But all I need are 5,001 votes to win.”

* THE ISSUES: Candidates in the June 5 primary respond to questions. B4

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