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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : 77TH ASSEMBLY DISTRICT : Connolly Uses Poetry to Dodge Salvos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his official biography, first-term Assemblyman Tom Connolly (D-Lemon Grove) tells us he is devoted to the works of Robert Service, the bard of the Yukon.

These days Connolly is particularly drawn to Service’s poem “The Quitter,” about a sourdough who is lost in the woods, “scared as a child” and “sore as a boil” but continues “to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight.”

It may be a good thing that the 48-year-old Vietnam veteran and criminal defense attorney finds succor in poesy. He has had enough political flak recently to send a weaker-willed pol running for the tall trees like one of Service’s snow-mad gold miners blitzing into the Great Alone.

The salvos began with a lengthy front-page profile in the San Diego Union-Tribune detailing all the untidy aspects of Connolly’s private life that had been largely missed by the media and his opposition when he won a surprise victory in a Republican district in 1992.

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On the published list were three divorces, a cocaine habit that ruined his law practice in the 1980s, personal bankruptcy, a fight with the IRS over unpaid taxes and a history of being in arrears in child support payments.

After the profile came stories about four former staff members alleging that Connolly subjected them to boorish and harassing statements about sexuality, including a continued reminder to women that an assemblyman’s staffers “serve at the pleasure of the member.”

Next came a document leaked to a radio talk show host showing that the San Diego Police Department vice squad had watched Connolly for six months in an unsuccessful effort to catch him trolling for prostitutes in his state-subsidized car with legislators’ license plates.

The vice squad officers say they are convinced that Connolly was seeking sex when he was spotted five times “cruising” along the city’s most notorious hooker hot spot.

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Capping his week in media hell was an editorial in the Union-Tribune branding Connolly a hypocrite for calling himself a “children’s advocate” on the ballot in 1992 despite being behind in child support payments. The paper endorsed his Republican opponent in 1992.

Connolly denies all wrongdoing and predicts reelection in November. “I’ve been through worse than this,” he said. “My whole life has been a quest for respect.”

The Assembly Rules Committee staff will look at the harassment allegations and then forward a recommendation to the committee, which is controlled by Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). Punishment could range from a scolding to expulsion.

One allegation forwarded to the Rules Committee staff is that Connolly made references to Brown’s sexual stamina. Connolly, who met with Brown last week, denied making any such statement.

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He said the other statements were made innocently while discussing AIDS legislation and how AIDS has changed sexual mores.

His overarching defense is that the harassment allegations were trumped up after he moved to fire the director of his Lemon Grove office for using the office to help congressman-turned-consultant Jim Bates, who was dumped by voters in 1990 after being snared in a sex harassment scandal.

Connolly found the profile story possibly beneficial because it showed voters how far he had fallen before kicking his cocaine habit and rebounding to win the ’92 race. He says he is current with his child support and is fulfilling an IRS schedule for paying $80,000.

He notes that the police lieutenant who authorized the vice squad surveillance twice ran for the state Legislature and has ideological links, through the Christian Right movement, to Steve Baldwin, the Republican who lost to Connolly in 1992 and is making another try this year.

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Baldwin said: “Regarding non-payment of taxes, child support and soliciting prostitutes, I’ll let the voters decide on these character and integrity issues.” He called the harassment allegations “serious and troubling.”

Connolly insists that he was on El Cajon Boulevard, a prostitutes’ hangout, because his wife works at a vitamin store there and a key political supporter lives nearby. He says he had first come to the officers’ attention by intervening in their street-corner interrogation of a prostitute who was eight months pregnant.

A talk show host demanded to know why he was so concerned about a prostitute. Connolly replied that while others might have seen only a prostitute, he saw a woman in distress.

The same world view is found in Service’s “My Madonna,” which says: “I haled me a woman from the street/ Shameless, but oh so fair . . . I hid all trace of her heart unclean/ I painted a babe at her breast.”

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Asked later about the similarity between his answer and the poem, Connolly reeled off four quatrains and added: “My whole belief in people is contained in ‘My Madonna.’ ”


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