COLUMN ONE : Seymour’s Overdrive for Success : Pete Wilson’s appointed successor settles into his U.S. Senate job with aggressive deal-making. He defends his earlier switches on issues such as abortion and offshore drilling.
In the hush of his office, John Francis Seymour is working what he calls “the levers of power” like a 53-year-old kid running an imaginary earthmover.
His fists grip invisible levers, pushing them back and forth. He bounds forward in his leather chair. His voice rises until it cracks. All that is missing is the grind of an engine.
California’s appointed senator is explaining the thrill of maneuvering a bureaucracy, which excites this self-described real estate millionaire as much as buying and selling the California Dream.
“That is a fantastic challenge!” he crows. “I mean, you gotta be good to succeed in the private sector. But if you’re gonna succeed in getting things done in the public sector, you gotta be better than that! That’s the challenge!”
There is no doubt in Seymour’s mind that he is up to the challenge. Four months after he was wrenched from a Sierra vacation to assume the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Pete Wilson, the diminutive Republican is plying the elegant marble halls of the Capitol with an effusiveness unfettered by humility.
If most of Washington’s power is dispensed in cool and bloodless strokes, Seymour is playing the opposite game. His approach is a blend of gee-whiz and “let’s make a deal"--an assertive, bartering politics that spares no time on the notion that freshmen senators should be seen more than heard.
His is the ambition of a man who has chased success since childhood, sure enough of himself to have set his sights on high statewide office the night in 1978 that he was elected mayor of Anaheim.
His rapid rise in the Legislature in Sacramento left Seymour with the image of a politician who cut deals with relish--helping his supporters in the process--and switches alliances as the need arises. Now that the job of his dreams has been dropped into his lap, Seymour faces the grueling prospect of a contentious and costly campaign in 1992 to win it outright.
In the struggle, Seymour will be almost clinically dissected.
His friends say that he embraces challenges and is unafraid to admit when he is wrong. His foes call him self-serving and accuse him of selling out on principles. His friends say that he is stubborn and tenacious. His foes add that he is relentless and shrill.
Despite an admittedly stumbling start that has inspired his critics to doubt his chances next year, Seymour is brimming with confidence.
He dismisses his critics as jealous, scorning particularly those of his own party who disapprove of the deals he has spent a lifetime cutting. He says that he is a political pragmatist, a born optimist who believes that anybody, anywhere in California, can make it good, just like he did--that anyone can grasp the levers of power.
To most California voters, this man sitting in the U.S. Senate is unknown. Rarely, in his eight years in the California Senate, did Seymour surface amid the state’s telegenic political stars.
He came closest to the spotlight last year, when he fought unsuccessfully for the lieutenant governorship. That campaign broke into the news only occasionally and left Seymour with an image that dogs him to this day--that of a man who changed his tune on two defining issues, abortion rights and offshore oil drilling.
On both, he abandoned long-held conservative views, adopting positions that favored abortion rights and opposed offshore drilling. Because the changes came before an election year and put him in the mainstream of California voters, they inspired charges, which Seymour denies, that the moves were politically motivated.
Suspicion of his motives is a sore spot for the senator and those close to him. When asked what his father stands for, Seymour’s son Jeff, 24, launched into a defense of his integrity.
“People misunderstand who John Seymour is,” he said. They think indecisive, flip-flop. . . . Which just isn’t true. He’s been misunderstood.”
It is tough to see, on some levels, how Seymour could be misunderstood by anyone, for he can be unnervingly blunt.
If the subject is the influence of money on politics, he tells an audience that he qualifies “in that nasty group of millionaires.” Discussing negotiating techniques, he offers that he has angrily stomped out of rooms in attempts to intimidate opponents. His gestures are theatrical, his words expressed in exclamations.
But his statements and actions at times distort reality in a way that serves to protect the image of success Seymour has so carefully created.
Long after he was unceremoniously stripped of a party leadership position in 1987, he insisted that he had intended all along to quit. In a recent interview, he gruffly acknowledged that the job had been taken from him “before I was ready to go.”
He is, acquaintances say, sensitive to public knowledge that he smokes, a habit that he practices in private and has long tried to quit.
His campaign literature notes that Seymour has six children and that “he and his wife, Judy, have lived in Anaheim for more than 25 years.” They have--but not together. Until their divorce 19 years ago, Seymour lived there with his first wife, Fran, the mother of three of his children.
On occasion, Seymour’s directness appears to be an outgrowth of his political ambitions. In the throes of the 1990 lieutenant governor’s primary, he publicly asked to be allowed to watch the state’s planned execution of double murderer Robert Alton Harris. According to him, it had nothing to do with the publicity he would garner; rather, he argued that supporters of capital punishment should be prepared to see it. The request was turned down.
His open quest for success has sometimes put him in conflict with fellow politicians, particularly more conservative Republicans who see him as willing to sacrifice them to his upward climb. It has also earned him the friendship of Democrats, who appreciate his willingness to work with them on major issues.
“I would characterize John Seymour as a deal maker in both the good and bad sense of the word,” said state Sen. Bill Leonard (R-Big Bear), a conservative now second-in-command among GOP members in the upper house. “He wants to be productive. He thinks that people can sit and talk long enough about their cares and concerns that consensus can be built. . . . The bad sense is there’s a time to compromise and a time to hold fast.”
The art of the deal is bred into Seymour’s bones. From his youth, every job he has held has been in sales, following the steps of his father, his uncles and his grandfather. To politics, he brought tactics honed in real estate, selling legislation as he once sold homes and keeping in mind a real estate dictum: Make the sale, or there’s no commission.
“Never have been one to go around dying on my philosophical sword. That is not productive,” he said during a conversation in his office. “I have seen too many in politics go back home and beat their chests over how they fought the battle but they lost the war. And that’s not my idea of why people elected me.”
Seymour sells and compromises with a rare intensity, instilled by a family that valued tenacity.
“An ethic of work, an ethic of discipline, an ethic of positive thinking,” Seymour describes his youth. His father, Jack, and mother, Helen, who live in Garden Grove, moved from Seymour’s birthplace of Chicago to Toledo, Ohio, and then to Mt. Lebanon, Pa., by the time Seymour was in high school.
From the time he was a boy, he had set a goal--to make $1 million. It was his first definition of success.
Seymour recalls his father demanding, when he was merely 10 years old: “What are you going to do when you grow up? What are you going to do when you grow up? What are you going to be? What are you going to do?”
It left an impression.
“You can’t expect a kid to decide what their lifetime career is going to be,” Seymour said. “But I did know I wanted to go into business and I did know that I wanted to make a million. . . . So it was sort of in my head, you know, way back. It never left.”
Seymour says that he did become a millionaire--a claim that has not been independently verified--through his Anaheim-based business, which he started with his parents after a tour in the Marines and a business degree from UCLA. The Marines, he says, turned him around, transforming a poor student into a good one, proving to him that he could make it in the toughest of climates.
His four-year hitch began after his parents suggested that he was not ready for college, and his father, using some home-grown psychology, announced that the military would undoubtedly reject him. Seymour, 17, promptly signed for the maximum enlistment.
Asserting himself in the face of challenge is a Seymour theme, in part a defiant response to his 5-foot, 6-inch stature, those around him suggest.
“Short people fight harder,” his father said. “If you notice on TV . . . it’s usually the big, tall guy that’s successful. You’re always competing with someone tall. Which makes you fight harder.”
Seymour denied being teased because of his height, but sensitivity about it clearly left its mark. In the ninth grade, he was head and shoulders shorter than his teammates--"That was the end of my basketball career,” he said wryly. His football career had ended a year earlier.
“To be a Marine,” he said, his voice sarcastically deepening to mimic a military recruitment commercial, “You’ve got to be six feet tall and able to lift 450 pounds or whatever. And I knew I couldn’t do that.
“But what does that mean? In sports, I remember in high school, in order to compete I had to try harder. In college, in order to get good grades I had to study longer. It just took more hours for me. In order to succeed in business I had to work longer hours--and so it’s just sort of a natural habit. Anything I do, whether it’s recreational or work, it’s never at 80%. It’s always at 110.”
And 110% to win--or Seymour is tempted not to compete at all. “He doesn’t arm-wrestle me now, because he knows I’ll beat him,” said his son Jeff.
“He does not like to be defeated,” said Seymour’s mother, Helen. “He always loves to win.”
Politics did not present itself as a natural extension of Seymour’s drive for success. The way he explains it, he began volunteering for city commissions much in the same way he served on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce and YMCA. In 1974, he was elected to the City Council.
“At that particular point, I don’t believe I had ever contributed to somebody’s campaign, never worked in a campaign, was not active in the Republican Party,” he said.
That would soon change. In 1978, he spent more than $55,000 in an unopposed campaign for mayor, according to reports at the time. The same year, he helped negotiate the deal that brought the Los Angeles Rams to Anaheim. He also backed Wilson’s unsuccessful run for governor, which would both whet Seymour’s appetite for statewide politics and tighten links between the two that would pay off handsomely 13 years later.
By 1982, aided by strong name identification in central Orange County and by his fund raising--he outspent all competitors combined by a 40-1 margin--Seymour was elected to the state Senate. From the outset in Sacramento, it was clear that Seymour was not wasting time.
“He never went through the usual freshman period of being seen and not heard. And not everybody liked that,” said Robert Naylor, a Seymour supporter who was GOP Assembly leader when Seymour came to Sacramento. “He had the reputation of being a little abrasive because he was not willing to sit back.”
What ranks in many minds as a defining moment came little more than a year after Seymour joined the Senate, when conservatives led by state SenL. Richardson labored to oust Republican leader William Campbell.
“He was perceived as part of the Campbell group, but I needed the votes to put together the overthrow,” said Richardson, now a consultant to U.S. Rep. William E. Dannemeyer of Fullerton, who is opposing Seymour in his bid for a first elected term. “The only way to do it was to promise him the caucus chairmanship.”
The caucus chair is the second-ranking party leadership position and a heady role for a freshman. The political plum dangled before him, Seymour switched his vote and moved with the majority to strip Campbell of his power.
Shrugging off fellow legislators’ anger, Seymour said that he was simply doing business the way it is done in Sacramento. Whatever his motives, the move made it easier years later for Seymour to be accused of expediency when he switched to popular positions on abortion rights and offshore oil drilling.
Seymour said he decided to favor abortion rights and oppose coastal drilling only after the circumstances surrounding both issues had changed. His abortion switch followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision allowing states to regulate the practice. His decision that same year on drilling came after oil spills despoiled Alaska’s Prince William Sound and Huntington Beach.
His positions changed, Seymour said, after deliberative discussions with representatives from both sides--a contention supported by friends who consulted with him.
“Times change, people change, conditions change. And thank God they do,” Seymour said. “Changing the mind in a changing environment--I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Whatever its repercussions among Republicans, Seymour’s flexibility made him a player in Sacramento. Early on, he was part of the team that framed SB 813, the landmark education reform bill of 1983. Democrat Gary K. Hart of Santa Barbara, a Senate powerhouse on education matters, said he found Seymour “easy to work with--and more than anything else, a good negotiator.”
Seymour’s support for increased money for teachers and his interest in special education and vocational education were not common among Republicans at the time. He also took on, early in his tenure, other issues that won notice on both sides of the aisle.
As early as 1983, he pressed for new programs in child care, ranging from cash payments to poor parents who could not take advantage of child-care tax credits to placing pressure on the insurance industry to offer liability policies to providers of child care.
“It’s not the kind of legislation that you would normally expect from a Republican male,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a former assemblywoman who engaged in some heated battles with Seymour on other issues.
“That stands out in my mind--and maybe one or two other issues--that seemed nonpartisan, almost like he was just truly interested in the issue. . . . He worked on them and he seemed sincere about them.”
But as often, Seymour aimed his attention at traditional Republican constituencies. Seymour, whose campaigns have been heavily financed by the real estate industry, pressed bills that would benefit developers and brokers, and was a particularly fierce opponent of rent control.
That Seymour trait--helping industries that helped finance his campaigns--recurred throughout his career. Seymour, in an interview, said he would only support a bill out of genuine personal belief, not because it could help his benefactors.
For eight years in Sacramento, Seymour rolled up reelection victories and built an impressive statewide fund-raising network. Still, few saw him as U.S. Senate material.
“Look, John’s where he is today because of one individual’s ability to put him there,” said Steven A. Merksamer, former chief of staff to Gov. George Deukmejian and a Seymour friend. “It could have just as easily been someone else. Politics is so much of a crapshoot.”
For months, Wilson pondered whom to appoint to the U.S. Senate. He interviewed several contenders and watched as others took themselves out of consideration. He and Seymour never discussed the Senate seat, Wilson said, not even in a 90-minute conversation held 10 days before Wilson offered Seymour the job.
Wilson said he based his decision on their similar views on issues, and on Seymour’s personal characteristics.
“He is honest, he is smart, he is tough-minded and he is tenacious,” Wilson said.
But none of those qualities fully prepared Seymour for his early days in office, he conceded recently as he strode through the Capitol.
“I felt like I was standing in the surf of a tidal wave, one wave after the other just crashing over my head and hardly being able to keep up, keep from drowning in all of it,” he said.
Sometimes it showed. More than a month after he was appointed, Seymour met with former President Ronald Reagan. Publicized by Seymour’s staff, the meeting was an opportunity for the senator to court, by extension, the conservatives who idolize Reagan and disdain Seymour.
After the meeting, Seymour bounded out of the elevator at Reagan’s Century City offices. Reagan, he said, deserved the credit for the military buildup that propelled the Persian Gulf effort--and in return, he suggested, the Strategic Defense Initiative that Reagan championed should be approved by Congress.
But the Bush Administration had significantly scaled back this so-called “Star Wars” initiative. Which version did he support--Bush’s or Reagan’s, Seymour was asked?
“Well, to be honest . . . I haven’t had the opportunity to review the details of it,” he said.
Occasionally, he still stumbles. Seymour’s bill to help the state deal with the drought would allow the secretary of the Interior to defer payments incurred by users of the federal water system. No interest would be charged to agricultural users, but others would have to pay interest at current rates.
Asked why he would hold farmers and urban areas to different standards, Seymour said he was “not aware” that that distinction was in the bill.
“It doesn’t sound logical to me,” he said. “Maybe I ought to check on that.”
As he has acclimated, Seymour has displayed increasing ease.
At a recent Capitol luncheon with other senators and reporters, he analyzed a host of measures, including the Endangered Species Act and the Social Security payroll tax. Often, he said, he had not come to a decision on particular issues, but he did grasp the arguments on both sides.
Seymour’s friends and political allies say that there can be no underestimating the overwhelming transition he has had to make into federal office, without benefit of a lengthy campaign to hone his positions and reflexes.
“Most people, when they arrive in the Senate, do so after seeking the post. He did not seek it. It was thrust upon him, without warning, and suddenly he was literally within a matter of days cast into an arena without having had any preparation,” Wilson said.
“He’d never dealt with SDI, never dealt in defense or foreign policy matters. These are new and they are complex, and John is not a hip-shooter,” the governor said.
Seymour is a product of the California where all seemed possible, where a young Marine could come West, set down roots and get rich. His view of the state virtually glows with possibilities. It is not a place of traffic jams and smog and urban chaos. Asked his vision of California, he cited “California Gold,” a John Jakes novel about the post-Gold Rush frontier.
“My dream, my vision for California, is the California Dream,” he said. “It is an environment in which the individual has the opportunity to become everything they’ve ever dreamed of--if they’re willing to try hard and if society is willing to give them half a chance. That’s the California Dream--it’s the epitome of the American Dream.”
His friends and political allies say that Seymour has consciously tried to broaden himself beyond the stereotype of Orange County Republicans, a mostly white, mostly male, mostly wealthy class. Seymour said he feels “very close” to the state’s poor and its minority populations. He points to his support of child care, vocational education and drug treatment.
Republican state Sen. Becky Morgan of Los Altos Hills, who served with Seymour on the substance abuse committee Seymour headed, said its hearings helped the senator understand poverty.
“While he does not live the life of the poor,” she said, “he has empathy.”
But Seymour has not always reinforced that image. He has long targeted welfare as a way to cut back government spending--most notably at February’s state GOP convention in Sacramento, where he came under criticism for appearing to equate welfare with a luxury item.
“Sometimes you lose your job,” he said. “Maybe you’ve got to sell your boat to keep your family going.”
Today, Seymour argues that he was unfairly criticized, and draws a distinction between yachts and mere boats.
“I wasn’t speaking of yacht owners,” he added. “ Boat owners! There’s hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions (of boats) in California.”
But Seymour’s son Jeff hints at a more personal reason for Seymour’s attitude toward welfare--and by extension, the poor.
“I think what he has said is--there are enough jobs out there. People just don’t want to take the jobs that are out there,” he said. “He can feel for the little man and the nobody--he was at one time a nobody. . . . He feels that anyone can do it.”
In 13 months, Seymour faces his first race for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. If he survives that, the general election will follow five months later.
At this early date, Seymour is feeling pressure from two quarters. On his right, Dannemeyer has already christened Seymour with a pejorative--"Senator Flip-Flop"--because of Seymour’s changed positions. From his left, Seymour is being challenged by Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who closely trailed Wilson in 1990’s tight race for governor. More combatants may follow.
What Seymour can accomplish before Election Day will be minimal, officials in Washington suggest, but he should be able to begin sketching his image for Californians.
Already, he has pushed for compromise on long-fought legislation to preserve millions of acres of California desert, which was ditched last year in a dispute between its sponsor, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), and then-Sen. Wilson.
“I think he looks on this as a chance to show that he can accomplish,” Cranston said.
Moderate moves on some social issues, along with conservative positions on crime and foreign policy, seem likely to achieve the same sort of image for Seymour that Wilson enjoyed through two Senate elections.
“I have to say, I think he will be more formidable than some have estimated he might be,” said U.S. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento). “He is not going to be, however, at any time, unbeatable. He is not a guy with a great deal of visibility even now.”
Seymour is trying to change that, traveling to California virtually every weekend, visiting a military base here, a schoolyard there, talking to farmers about the drought, and to business leaders about the recession.
Sometimes, in the subtle sweetness of a spring afternoon in the capital, the sun glinting off the Washington Monument down the Mall, he floats on the “constant high” the Senate has provided him.
“I tell you, I love it!” he said. “Love every minute of it! All of it!”