Questions Linger About Attack on Herschensohn : Campaign: Defeated GOP Senate candidate still claims Barbara Boxer was behind allegations that he frequented a nude dance club. Rumors about him were numerous, but there is no proof that his opponent ordered the disclosure.
In July, Mark Murray began hearing rumors from friends in Democratic circles that Republican Bruce Herschensohn regularly visited the Seventh Veil nude dancing club in Hollywood.
As policy director of the Sacramento-based lobbying group Californians Against Waste, Murray is an ardent environmentalist who wanted a like-minded Democrat such as Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. So, in the weeks before Election Day, Murray watched with dismay as Boxer squandered a 22-point lead in statewide polls without attacking her conservative opponent for patronizing a Sunset Boulevard strip joint.
“As much as anything, folks kept talking about it publicly--maybe I was guilty of this myself--hoping we wouldn’t have to wait for Boxer to spring this,” Murray said.
Four days before the Nov. 3 election, Murray got his wish when the political director of the California Democratic Party confronted Herschensohn at a campaign appearance in Chico. The outburst by party official Bob Mulholland plunged the final days of the campaign into a furious exchange of accusations.
Critics attacked Herschensohn as a hypocrite for observing striptease acts while embracing conservative religious values. Herschensohn countered that Boxer had organized a sleazy last-minute political smear.
Most political analysts do not believe that the disclosure decided the election. But many said the incident slowed Herschensohn’s momentum in the final days of the campaign and helped Boxer roll to a comfortable victory by 5 percentage points.
Seven weeks after the election, questions linger about the origin of the political attack. Herschensohn maintains that Boxer was behind the eleventh-hour attempt to discredit him. Some key players continue to offer accounts that seem contradictory or raise doubt.
To answer these questions, The Times conducted more than 50 interviews with people inside the campaigns and others knowledgeable about the climactic events of the Senate race.
No evidence has emerged that Boxer ordered the disclosure or knew about it in advance. But the interviews revealed that at least some Boxer campaign officials were not as in the dark about the disclosure as they have claimed.
Although Boxer and some top aides say they knew nothing of the Herschensohn rumors, these rumors circulated widely among Boxer supporters for months before Mulholland’s outburst.
Mulholland continues to say that his was a rogue action and that no one knew about his intentions. But the day before the disclosure, a Washington political activist says she was told by a Boxer fund-raiser that the disclosure was going to occur soon.
At the time, Mulholland’s attack was widely condemned by Republicans and Democrats as a personal smear beyond the bounds of accepted political discourse. The passing of weeks has mellowed some of those views. After criticizing Mulholland, California Democratic Party Chairman Phil Angelides now says the attack on Herschensohn was a legitimate issue to raise.
Over the past month, The Times interviewed Boxer, Herschensohn, their campaign aides, Democratic and Republican officials, political consultants and other knowledgeable sources. Here is what was found:
When did reports about Herschensohn’s patronage of nude establishments begin circulating?
Soon after Herschensohn defeated Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Palo Alto) in the June primary, rumors that he had visited nude clubs and purchased adult magazines began swirling within California political circles.
The reports were so widespread that someone such as Murray, who was not directly involved in the campaign, heard repeatedly from acquaintances around the state that Herschensohn had visited the Seventh Veil.
“I felt this information would come out,” Murray said. “If not the Boxer campaign, then somebody who really cared about this race would have made the information public because too many people knew about it.”
Why didn’t the information surface earlier?
Many people dismissed the reports as unsubstantiated rumor or irrelevant to the campaign.
A Times reporter in Sacramento was told by a Los Angeles broadcaster about rumors that Herschensohn had visited strip joints. After conferring with editors, Times staff writer Dan Morain decided to focus on the personal finances and public policy positions of the candidates and spent little effort trying to confirm the tip.
The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women was contacted by a woman who said she was a stripper at the Seventh Veil and who reported that Herschensohn was in the place “all the time,” according to chapter President Tammy Bruce, who spoke with the woman.
Bruce said she judged the call to be neither legitimate nor relevant. Once the information was made public, Bruce and her organization confirmed Herschensohn’s visits to the Seventh Veil by contacting three employees and issued a statement criticizing him.
The editor of a monthly alternative newspaper for women in Chico said she received calls from half a dozen readers providing similar details about Herschensohn. Loretta J. Metcalf, editor and publisher of the New Voice, said she was disturbed by the reports because they suggested that Herschensohn had engaged in an activity demeaning to women. But her deadline for the November issue had passed.
Did anyone tell Boxer and her campaign staff ?
Boxer and several top campaign advisers insist that they did not know about or discuss any information pertaining to Herschensohn’s visits to nude clubs.
But some top Boxer staffers said they had heard the rumors. An employee who collected opposition research for Boxer passed the information on to the campaign, according to Boxer aides who asked not to be named. Boxer campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski confirmed that she had heard the rumor but said she never discussed it with Boxer. She said they had long ago decided not to pursue any leads involving Herschensohn’s personal life.
How did Mulholland find out?
Two people who had worked with Herschensohn at KABC radio and television stations in Los Angeles told Mulholland about three weeks before the election that the Republican candidate had visited nude clubs and adult newsstands, Mulholland said.
Mulholland said he relayed the information to his boss, party chairman Angelides, during a brief conversation at their Sacramento headquarters. According to both men, Angelides said he was not interested in pursuing the matter.
Even though he worked very closely with Boxer and her staff in the final weeks of the campaign, Angelides said he did not consider the information important enough to inform anyone in the Boxer campaign.
Mulholland said he felt uneasy sharing the information with Boxer and her top salaried campaign staffers because they are all women. “Sex is a difficult issue,” he said. “If it had been a male candidate and a male staff, I probably would have been more comfortable talking to them.”
What did Mulholland do with the information?
Despite Angelides’ lack of interest, Mulholland decided to check the story by going to the seedy strip along Sunset Boulevard.
“In just one visit I got it all,” he said.
Mulholland, who has a reputation in state political circles as a zealous defender of Democrats, said he stopped by the Centerfold Newsstand on Fairfax Avenue one night after work about 11 p.m. According to Mulholland, the manager told him that Herschensohn was a regular customer who spent time in the adult section and bought sexually explicit magazines.
Mulholland said he then went to the Seventh Veil, where a parking attendant outside and a hostess inside confirmed that Herschensohn had frequented the nude dance club on many occasions, but not since the June primary.
Herschensohn stands by his initial account that he visited the Seventh Veil once.
Mulholland talked with a friend “about the best way to get this stuff out,” said the friend, who asked not to be identified. On Oct. 28--six days before the election--Mulholland passed the information to a California newspaper reporter, whom he declined to identify. The reporter expressed little interest, Mulholland said.
Did the Boxer campaign know Mulholland was about to unleash the attack on Herschensohn?
Boxer and Mulholland say no.
Mulholland described his decision to expose Herschensohn’s conduct as spontaneous. “Nobody in this state, including my wife . . . including me, knew (what) was going to happen,” he said.
However, a fund-raiser for the Boxer campaign alerted a Democratic feminist activist in Washington that “there is going to be a scandal about Herschensohn” dealing with pornography, the activist told The Times. This conversation allegedly took place the day before Mulholland’s attack.
Two other sources also spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity. A former Democratic Party activist and a California Democratic state legislator said they were told by Boxer campaign workers that Boxer staffers knew in advance that the Herschensohn allegations would be disclosed.
None of the sources said that Boxer knew or that her campaign ordered Mulholland to act.
Who first disclosed the information?
Before Mulholland disrupted Herschensohn’s Oct. 30 appearance at Chico City Hall, New Voice editor Loretta Metcalf opened a question-and-answer session by asking Herschensohn: “Is there any truth to the rumors that you frequented adult bookstores and nude dancing establishments?”
Metcalf now finds it difficult to believe she was the first person to pop the question. “I just can’t imagine why no one asked it sooner,” she said. “All of the media had ahold of this rumor. If this had been Clinton or anyone else, they would have jumped on it.”
Herschensohn did not answer the question when Metcalf asked it.
It was not until Herschensohn articulated his anti-abortion position that Mulholland pulled out a giant poster of the Seventh Veil and shouted at the stunned candidate: “Should the voters of California elect someone who frequently travels the strip joints of Hollywood? . . . Can you answer that, yes or no?”
Explaining his actions later, Mulholland said: “At that moment, I just blew up.”
That morning, California newspapers had carried a statewide Field Poll showing Herschensohn trailing Boxer by 1 percentage point.
Did Herschensohn mishandle his response?
Looking back, Herschensohn now admits that he made a major tactical error by telling reporters he had gone to the Seventh Veil once with a female companion and another couple.
By confirming a visit to the Seventh Veil and providing contradictory details, Herschensohn breathed life into the story. Even more publicity followed the next day when Herschensohn blamed Boxer for setting him up but offered no proof for his assertion.
Herschensohn now says that he should have remained quiet and let the story die. “I should never have dignified it with any answer or explanation,” he said.
Was the California Democratic Party involved?
Angelides, the party chairman, says that Mulholland acted alone.
Herschensohn campaign manager Ken Khachigian said it is inconceivable that Angelides worked so closely with the Boxer campaign yet had no idea his top employee would release the information.
At the time, Angelides vigorously denounced Mulholland’s attack as inappropriate and suspended him without pay for acting without the party’s approval. But Angelides reinstated Mulholland less than a week after the election.
With the election over, Angelides now says he is free to speak his mind. “I happen to believe that everything Bob Mulholland did and said was true, and it was a legitimate issue by virtue of the fact that Bruce Herschensohn himself attacked his opponent for lack of religious beliefs.”
How did the disclosure affect the race?
It hurt Herschensohn but did not make a difference in the outcome, according to several political analysts.
“Ultimately, this election was not going to turn on one trip to the Seventh Veil disqualifying Bruce Herschensohn from serving as a senator,” said Susan Estrich, a USC law instructor who served as campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. “What (the disclosure) did accomplish was to throw Herschensohn off his game. . . . He lost all his momentum, while Boxer was out there with Feinstein saying it’s time for change.”
Boxer discounts any impact. “I never believed that it would make the difference in the campaign one way or another, and it didn’t,” she said.
However, the negative publicity surrounding the episode may have detracted from Boxer’s victory.
Veteran Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell said: “This is not good for Barbara Boxer. I think it tarnishes her six years from now (when she is up for reelection). People are going to bring this up.”
Was the attack a dirty trick that crossed the bounds of accepted political discourse?
The disclosure has been largely condemned by Democrats and Republicans as improper because it focused attention during the height of the campaign on Herschensohn’s personal habits instead of the stark ideological differences that separated the candidates.
“It was a desperate tactic,” said Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente). “I abhor what they did to Bruce.”
But despite the widespread condemnations, the attack seems to meet the test often applied in politics that personal actions of candidates should be consistent with their public actions.
“In an era of this sort of campaigning, it is a fairly pale sort of dirty trick,” said Barbara Sinclair, a UC Riverside political scientist. “It wasn’t even made up.”
But Republican political consultants predict that everything about a Democratic candidate’s personal life is now fair game. And they vow to make Angelides their No. 1 target if he chooses to run for statewide office in 1994.
As for Mulholland, he has no regrets.
“I don’t think Bruce Herschensohn can ever run for public office again,” he said. “I’m always glad when a Republican goes to the cemetery.”