Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Mel Levine, who has spent a political lifetime on the inside of power politics in the state Legislature and Congress, ripped into his party’s leadership Wednesday, saying Democrats have swept problems relating to urban violence “under the rug” and “won’t deal with it.”
Levine, a day after he unveiled a new television ad blaming the Los Angeles riots on “a failure of political leadership,” criticized Republicans, as might be expected, but aimed some of his sharpest jabs at Democrats.
“The leadership of the Democratic Party has spent more time explaining away the root causes of these problems than trying to provide public safety for the people who live in the inner city,” Levine said during an interview in his Los Angeles campaign headquarters.
He added, “You have Republicans who basically talk very tough law-and-order talk and aren’t prepared to provide the resources to do anything about it, and you have Democrats who sweep it under the rug, who won’t deal with it, who won’t even talk about it.”
Levine is running against Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and Rep. Barbara Boxer in the June 2 Democratic primary to fill the seat being vacated by longtime Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston.
On the Republican side, the primary candidates are former radio and television commentator Bruce Herschensohn, Rep. Tom Campbell and Sony Bono, a former pop singer and ex-mayor of Palm Springs.
The tough talk from Levine, widely regarded over the years as a liberal, drew a sharp response from Ken Khachigian, an adviser to Herschensohn and a longtime Republican Party strategist.
“Republicans usually come at this naturally. Democrats have to work a lot harder at it,” said Khachigian. “Take Mel. Is this the same guy who led anti-war demonstrations in the 1960s. Was he out condemning mob rule then? Anyway, I’m pleased he’s finally come around. I welcome him to the ranks of those who have conservative beliefs.”
A longtime political insider, Levine served five years in the state Assembly before being elected to the House in 1982. He is a close ally of influential Reps. Howard Berman and Henry A. Waxman, sharing political district boundaries, campaign contributors and even campaign management.
Levine acknowledged that he contributed his share to Democratic decision making. “I’ve bought off on some of that myself, there is no doubt about it,” he said.
The candidate said he decided to speak out because “nobody, I felt, had been addressing the breakdown of civilization, the anarchy, and that is the first function of government. The first function of government is to provide for public safety. . . . We have people terrified to go out their front door.”
Echoing what Republicans have been saying for years, Levine said, “the pressures within the (Democratic) party come from institutions that are much more focused on thinking about these things in terms of social programs and throwing money at the problems and root causes.”
Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s campaign manager, said Boxer holds the view that it is most productive at this point to work to “change the conditions that lead to urban unrest.” She noted that Levine still has not taken a position on city Charter Amendment F, the measure designed to bring about reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Mel Levine on Law and Order
* In the midst of a $4-million television advertising campaign, Mel Levine on Wednesday began airing a spot that emphasizes law and order in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. It includes an endorsement from a state police organization. “It’s a failure of political leadership,” Levine says in the 30-second spot. “A democratic society can’t tolerate mob rule.” As with all the other Levine commercials, the ad closes with actor James Earl Jones intoning the line: “Wisdom, courage, one of a kind, Democrat for Senate, Mel Levine.” An echo chamber opens on the final mention of Levine.
In addition to the law-and-order message, Levine is airing a series of regional ads that target specific parts of California by including endorsements from officials in those cities and counties
* Levine blames a “failure of political leadership” for the riots. Yet he fails to note that for the last 10 years he has served as a U.S. congressman representing a district that includes some of the riot zone. Before that, he was a state assemblyman for five years and is a longtime associate of one of the most powerful political organizations in California, the Westside-based alliance named for Reps. Henry A. Waxman and Howard L. Berman. His specialty has been foreign policy, although his aides point to Levine’s support for civil rights legislation and public transportation bills as evidence of his work on behalf of the inner city.
Levine racked up the second worst attendance record last year in Congress, and on Wednesday he had not decided whether to return to Washington for a vote on emergency post-riot aid to Los Angeles. In the ad, Levine does not say what should be done to provide stronger law enforcement. In an interview, however, he says leaders from both political parties are to blame for the breakdown that led to the riots: Democrats for failing to recognize the importance of public safety to inner-city residents, and Republicans for their unwillingness to support increased funding.