It was high noon at the Big Fresno Fair and Brad Sherman was sidling up to prospective voters outside the Pronto Pup corn dog stand.
"Hi, I'm running for the State Board of Equalization," declared the balding 36-year-old Granada Hills tax attorney and accountant. "And I'm handing out combs for two reasons: So you'll remember my name and on the theory that you can use one more than I can."
Dean Kourafas, who had been sipping a beer, gladly accepted the blue notion. But the black-haired Fresno food marketer later acknowledged that he was more than slightly befuddled about what Sherman will be doing if he is elected to the five-member board next month.
"Board of Equalization," pondered the young Fresno resident. "Isn't it something to do with raising food and providing programs for the needy?"
Not quite. But not quite surprising either.
In an era in which California politics seems synonymous with big money and mass media campaigning, the race for the nation's only elected tax appeals board is something of an anomaly. Here, the question of name recognition extends beyond the candidates to the government body itself.
"Some people think it's some sort of a civil rights commission," says Republican Claude Parrish, who is running against Sherman to represent a 3-million-voter district stretching from Santa Monica to San Francisco.
Change the name to the State Tax Commission, chimes in Sherman: "Then, people's ears might perk up."
Of late, the obscure but powerful board--which rules on personal and corporate tax appeals and oversees the collection and distribution of sales, gas and cigarette taxes--has been receiving more attention than usual. That's because member Paul Carpenter was recently convicted of federal extortion charges stemming from his previous service as a state senator.
However, little of the media focus has spilled over to the candidacies of Sherman and Parrish, who are vying for a seat being vacated by unsuccessful state Insurance Commissioner candidate Conway Collis.
There is no question these lonely men of California politics want this $95,000-a-year job.
Sherman is a Harvard Law School grad and political junkie. He lived in Orange County in the late 1960s and early 1970s, graduating from Corona del Mar High School and spending a year at Orange Coast College before moving on to UCLA and Harvard. He says he literally went for broke, selling the three condos he owned and moving into a $600-a-month apartment so he could loan his campaign almost $400,000 for the six-candidate Democratic primary. A good portion of the money went to pay for being included on influential election slate mailers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Sherman figures that because the district is solidly Democratic his party affiliation alone gives him a nearly insurmountable advantage this fall. If elected, he expects to eventually see the loan repaid through future campaign contributions.
"And if I lose," he adds, "I'm a 36-year-old lawyer with no net worth. I won't be all that different from a lot of yuppie lawyers."
Meanwhile, Parrish, a former barbershop owner from Canoga Park who has more recently worked as controller for a small securities firm, is combing the countryside seeking endorsements from county assessors. He also held a fund-raiser this week at the well-appointed Petroleum Club in downtown Los Angeles, featuring another politician known for his traveling, former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty.
With an outsize district and less than $20,000 cash on hand for each, the candidates say that full-scale advertising efforts in major metropolitan areas are both uneconomical and unfeasible. Moreover, they note, the board race draws virtually no big city TV or newspaper coverage.
So, after covering such bases as ballot designation--Sherman says his polls show the title "CPA" really helps--the pair have little choice but to wage what is essentially a small-town campaign over an area the size of some states.
Last week, Sherman motored more than 1,000 miles through Watsonville, Paso Robles, Hanford and Santa Barbara, slowing down for interviews at weekly newspapers and radio stations.
He was chauffeured by his secret weapon: his mother, Lane Sherman, whose consuming passion, along with the success of her children, is long-distance driving. Lane Sherman still lives in Newport Beach and her mother is a resident of Leisure World in Laguna Hills.
Arriving in Fresno Thursday, mother and son set up shop outside the main entrances to the Big Fresno Fair, where up to 75,000 people passed daily.
"I'd like to introduce you to my son, Brad," said Mrs. Sherman, as she energetically handed out brochures. "My son, he's a tax attorney and a CPA."
Wearing a blue suit and suspenders in a sea of plaid and denim, it was hard to mistake Sherman for anything else.
Yet the bookish candidate, who has represented California Common Cause in legislative hearings on tax issues, did exhibit a sense of humor. By handing out his combs and quips, he became the first statewide candidate in recent memory who has sought to use male pattern baldness to his advantage.
At night, mother and son moved inside the fair to collar crowds streaming in for performances by Johnny Cash and Engelbert Humperdinck. Virtually the only large audience they passed up at the fair was the one at a Joan Jett rock concert.
"The median voter in this state is 55 years old," explained Sherman, whose platform stresses professionalism and the elimination of big business tax loopholes. "I'm sure Joan Jett is a wonderful lady and deeply concerned about the political issues of our time. But the crowd she attracts does not represent high voter turnout."
Parrish, meanwhile, has been reaching out to voters by appearing at any public forum that will have him.
"I never turn any invitation down," confided Parrish, who has failed in previous runs for Congress, school board and the Board of Equalization. "I get a lot of invitations--but to be honest, it's because the district is so large."
Speaking at a senior citizens' political forum in Van Nuys last week, Parrish, 43, promised that he would save taxpayers' money by employing "strict conservative accounting principles."
Then he unveiled his answer to Sherman's combs: potholders.
Parrish placed the kitchen mitts on a table next to stacks of brochures, bumper stickers, pens and posters. Within minutes, they had been scooped up, while most of the other candidates' election paraphernalia remained untouched.
At 39 cents each, Parrish later explained to a reporter, they cost more than four times as much as Sherman's combs. "But combs you lose. A potholder lasts and lasts."
The candidate concluded with a campaign pitch: "Who then is the more effective candidate at spending money? I think I am."