Bob Mulholland, the political director of the Democratic Party who was suspended for efforts to discredit Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn, is an old hand at attack-style politics.
This year alone, he has figured in dirty politics charges stemming from research he ordered into the background of an opponent of state Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Van Nuys and, in another race, for a mailer he sent out saying a write-in opponent of Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) was no longer an active candidate. In 1984, Mulholland made the news by digging up the fact that another opponent of Hayden's had been court-martialed for drug abuse.
None of his past activities, though, hit with the impact of the accusation Friday that Herschensohn had visited an all-nude Hollywood strip joint and was a customer of an adult newsstand.
The disclosures, later confirmed in part by Herschensohn, stunned both campaigns. There were intense reactions, such as comments from one irate woman who called The Times complaining about the story, saying disclosures about personal matters "smack of fascism to me. I think it's disgusting." Herschensohn's campaign manager, Ken Khachigian, referred to Mulholland as a "walking stink bomb."
State Democratic Party Chairman Phil Angelides moved quickly to stop the political damage, saying the information had been released without his approval. He suspended Mulholland without pay. But Republicans say the action is meaningless because the campaign is almost over and Angelides refused to fire Mulholland outright.
Mulholland, sitting out the election at his home in Chico, is unrepentant.
During an interview Sunday with The Times, he characterized the disclosure as an "emotional" response to statements Herschensohn made espousing "family values."
So far, Mulholland has refused to disclose where he got the information about Herschensohn's "night life."
Since 1991, when he helped engineer Angelides' election as Democratic Party chief, Mulholland said he began "researching" the backgrounds of three prominent Republican Senate candidates with the full knowledge of other party officials.
Mulholland said the party spent $60,000 to underwrite the project, which was directed at Herschensohn, incumbent Sen. John Seymour, and Rep. Tom Campbell, who was defeated in the primary by Herschensohn. "Normally, Democrats wait until the day after the primary, then say: 'What do we know about this candidate?' We wanted to be ready," he said.
It is all part of an aggressive strategy that Mulholland said he mapped out with Angelides to win state and federal offices for Democrats.
Mulholland said: "Over the years, Republicans have gotten a free ride. This year, we decided to confront them from the start."
He said he believes that Herschensohn's position on family values is hypocritical, so he confronted the candidate during a campaign event in Chico on Friday.
Asked if he would do it again if he had the chance, Mulholland said: "I don't know what I'd do. I just got angry, had an emotional response. I just blew up. I said (to myself), 'I bet all these people think Herschensohn goes to church two or three times a week.' "
Mulholland said: "I've never been afraid of tough fights, and I certainly have acted on my instincts. I wouldn't describe myself as a loose cannon. I'm just someone very committed to political and social change."
Though Democratic officials are trying to distance themselves from Mulholland, the political operative has spent years working in the party for a variety of candidates and causes.
Mulholland helped Hayden start the Campaign for Economic Democracy in the mid-1970s, directed the campaign for the 1990 environmental initiative dubbed Big Green, and helped run the campaign that led to the closing of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant near Sacramento in the late '80s.
Mulholland said he has also worked for candidates from "Eureka to San Diego."
The tall, balding Mulholland was raised in a working-class neighborhood near Philadelphia in a large, blue-collar family. Considered aggressive and smart, even by Republicans, Mulholland, 45, is a Vietnam combat veteran, a paratrooper who was wounded during the war and came home, he said, "very disillusioned."
Mulholland said: "I went to Vietnam in support of the war and left opposed to it. The war probably had the biggest impact on my life, seeing so many of my generation and friends destroyed by something that history has shown to be a mistake."
Mulholland said that after being discharged he hitchhiked around the country for two years, went overseas, then attended college in Los Angeles and at Cal State Chico. In Chico, he met his wife, Jane Dolan, now a Butte County supervisor. They were part of a grass-roots movement of local activists connected to Hayden's Campaign for Economic Democracy who won seats on the Butte County Board of Supervisors and the Chico City Council.
The current Senate campaign began with humor: Angelides and Mulholland appeared at a Sacramento news conference with two large bloodhounds, which they said were needed "to track any shred of accomplishment" by Seymour. Over the next months, Mulholland dogged Seymour and Herschensohn relentlessly, at times seeming to be as much a fixture at their news conferences as they were, holding up signs and stepping up to the dais when they had finished in order to give the Democrats' side of issues.
At one event in Sacramento, Mulholland stood directly behind Seymour, facing the television cameras and holding up a sign with an enlargement of the headline of a story favorable to Dianne Feinstein, Seymour's Democratic opponent.
"That night, I got as much coverage as he did," Mulholland said.
Staff writer George Skelton contributed to this story from Sacramento.