CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / 1st CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT : Unusual Contest Reflects Region's Eclectic Politics


Some things are constants up along California's North Coast. The fog rolls in by evening, for instance, and you can always find a fresh catch of the day.

But with politics, predictable patterns come crashing down. To wit:

Four years ago, the voters dumped their longtime Democratic congressman and replaced him with a strait-laced Republican ex-cop. Two years later, they made a U-turn again, bouncing the Republican in favor of 1960s peacenik Dan Hamburg--a laid-back liberal who refuses to wear a tie on the House floor.

Now comes election year 1994, and the drama has turned stranger still. Like aging quarterbacks fighting for the starting slot, the trio of past and present congressmen has been reunited in a three-way struggle, creating what may be California's most unpredictable and intriguing spring campaign.

"It's a wild one, something I've never seen before," said Dick Rosengarten, who publishes a newsletter on California politics. "It's three little piggies playing a very odd game of musical chairs. . . . Who wins? I couldn't possibly guess."

There is, of course, some method to this madness. The volatility of the politics is anchored, to a great degree, in the peculiar dynamics of the region the men are vying to represent.

Sprawling from redwood country on the Oregon border 350 miles south to Solano County, the 1st Congressional District has an extraordinary mix of economies, including fisheries, timber, wineries, marijuana, and even the military. Some towns are dominated by ranchers with gun racks in their trucks; others host communes of vegetarian pot growers.

"You've got vineyard owners, loggers, unemployed fishermen, military types and Earth First! radicals all mixed together," said Eric Koenigshofer, a former Sonoma County supervisor. "It's a very difficult array of groups for any candidate to tie--and hold--together."

The numbers suggest the district is a liberal one. President Clinton won big here, and Democrats hold a solid 51%-to-34% edge in voter registration.

But acute divisions over one burning issue--the standoff between loggers and forest preservationists--defy predictions and scramble traditional party lines. Up here, a politician is either pro-tree or pro-log; there is no in-between.

"Everyone in the 1st District loves redwood trees," says Doug Bosco, who was a congressman here in the 1980s and is attempting a comeback. "It's just that half the people love them vertical and half love them horizontal."

Dan Hamburg--solidly pro-vertical--is the incumbent trying to balance these forces and hang on to the job he wrested from Republican Frank Riggs two years ago. On Tuesday, he faces Bosco in the Democratic primary. If he prevails, Hamburg will probably face a November rematch with Riggs, who has only token opposition within the GOP.

Hamburg, 45, is a onetime Mendocino County supervisor of modest means, whose background has a distinctly "flower child" flavor. An anti-war crusader while at Stanford University, he joined the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s and settled near Ukiah, where he and like-minded refugees founded an alternative school. A decade later, he moved to China, running a cultural exchange program with his wife, Carrie.

Despite a decidedly low-key style, Hamburg has quickly distinguished himself as a different kind of congressman. Before arriving in Washington he raised eyebrows by collecting unemployment benefits during a portion of his campaign--prompting Riggs to dub him "Deadbeat Dan."

Once in Congress, he bucked tradition by refusing to wear a tie on the House floor (a flap he resolved by agreeing to don a bolo tie) and became known as the "Capitol Hill hunk" after making People magazine's 1993 list of the 50 most beautiful humans on the planet.

March brought more headlines. After promising to tithe a portion of his salary to charity, Hamburg reneged, saying he had a second mortgage to pay and had not realized the definition of tithe is 10% of one's pay.

Opponents mock him for that flip-flop, but mainly deride him as a "flake" and "counterculture congressman." Supporters, however, call him refreshing, and praise him as a person who is seemingly unafraid of political risk.

Despite society's "just say no" attitude toward drugs, for example, Hamburg favors the decriminalization of marijuana and an end to California's paramilitary-style war on weed. In a time of mounting public concern over crime, he opposes capital punishment and the state's "three strikes and you're out" law.

And although it contained money for bases in his district, Hamburg voted against the defense budget because "it's foolish to spend millions on new bombers" in a post-Cold War world.

"Whether you agree with his views or not," said Connie Stewart, a member of the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, "you've got to admire his guts."

Hamburg's biggest political gamble is his bill to ban logging in Humboldt's Headwaters Forest, and to limit cutting in a 69-square-mile buffer zone around it. The bill has made Hamburg an instant enemy of the powerful timber industry, prompting some Republicans in the business to re-register as Democrats so they can support Bosco in the primary.

"Dan Hamburg is a nice guy, but he puts trees before people," said Richard Hargreaves, a mill worker in Ft. Bragg. "How can I support somebody who supports laws that put people out of work?"

It is the timber issue, not surprisingly, that illuminates the most dramatic contrast between Hamburg and Bosco, who served four terms in Congress after his election in 1982. Calling the Headwaters bill a land grab that will further stress struggling timber families, Bosco accuses Hamburg of pushing an "Earth First! environmental agenda" that will go nowhere.

"Dan can go to tears over a marbled murrelet," Bosco said, referring to a threatened bird that nests in dense redwood groves. "I'm more concerned about the kid whose world falls apart because Dad got laid off."

Aside from his political motives, Bosco, 48, has a personal stake in the matter. A millionaire attorney, his clients include the owner of the Headwaters Forest, Pacific Lumber Co., which has paid him about $15,000 a month since mid-1993 to lobby against Hamburg's bill. Bosco's father-in-law owns a Eureka wood products company.

Bosco, who lives in Sebastopol, defines the primary contest as a cultural battle. Hamburg, he says, "is one of these laid-back '60s guys who is on the radical fringe on every issue. I'm reaching out to working-class, mainstream Democrats."

Walking precincts last week in Fairfield, home to Travis Air Force Base, he focused on drugs and crime--never failing to mention Hamburg's opposite positions on marijuana and capital punishment. His campaign ads go further, invoking the abduction of 12-year-old Polly Klaas to point out that "Hamburg opposes the death penalty, even for murderers like Richard Allen Davis," Polly's alleged killer.

The candidates differ stylistically as well. Bosco, who is married to a Municipal Court judge, wears crisp white shirts and Ralph Lauren ties and drives a late-model Mercury. Hamburg seems to prefer blue jeans for all occasions; his car is pushing 30 years old.

Though Bosco is well-known in the House, his candidacy has angered members of California's Democratic congressional delegation, who unanimously endorsed Hamburg. Bosco, who also served in the state Assembly, says it is odd running as an outsider.

"For years I was one of the party stalwarts, the guy who threw the fund-raisers, who poured thousands into other Democrats' campaigns," he said. "Now I'm kind of like the guest crashing the banquet, spoiling the party. It's strange, but in one sense, it's sort of liberating."

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