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This Buck’s Not Stopping : McKeon’s Strong 1st Term Brings Opportunity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shortly after his election to Congress in 1992, Howard P. (Buck) McKeon took a wrong turn and got lost on his way from the Capitol to his nearby hotel.

“I’d heard all these stories about how bad Washington was. And I thought: ‘Well, this is it. I’m going to get killed before I ever raise my hand’ ” to take the oath of office, McKeon said, laughing at the recollection.

Now, 19 months into his first term, Buck McKeon is not lost any more.

The Santa Clarita Republican--a businessman and former mayor--has quickly found his way in an institution that affords a freshman lawmaker, especially one in the minority, few chances to stand out. Indeed, McKeon’s success has posed a challenge that he and his advisers are already pondering: What does he do for an encore if he is reelected, as expected, this November?

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There are several possibilities, say those close to him. These include positioning McKeon for future ascendancy in the House GOP leadership or policy committees or, down the road, possibly even a 1998 bid for governor or the U.S. Senate.

McKeon, displaying the self-effacing demeanor that belies his inner drive, downplays such aspirations as either out of reach or the agenda of an overeager political aide. Nonetheless, he is a man who clearly looks upon his initial term with more than a modicum of satisfaction.

McKeon’s early prominence has been due largely to his position as president of the 51-member Republican freshman class, which pushed, with occasional success, for congressional reform. But he also met with Ross Perot several times, and was wined and dined at the White House when President Clinton sought his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And, in January, he became Congressman Earthquake when the devastating 6.8-magnitude Northridge temblor was centered in his district. This gave McKeon more than his 15 minutes of fame as he appeared with Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Cabinet officials, was interviewed on television and played a key role in passing an $8.6-billion emergency aid bill.

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Asked how much different life is now than it was two years ago, McKeon shares an anecdote.

‘The Man’

“One guy at a fund-raiser said, ‘When you were running before, you were just a wanna-be,’ ” McKeon said during a lengthy interview here. “ ‘Now, you’re the man.’ ”

McKeon’s crash course in the ways of Washington has not come without hitting some bumps, however. His decision to break a campaign pledge by voting for NAFTA angered some constituents, particularly some of Perot’s legion of hard-core backers in McKeon’s district. And he upset some constituents recently by expressing reservations, in retrospect, about a California term limit initiative that he endorsed when he was a candidate.

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And there are the unmet goals: McKeon has not prevented Elsmere Canyon, in the heart of his district, from being used as a landfill, though he says he is making headway. He has been stymied by scheduling conflicts in his bid to lure members of the House Armed Services Committee to the aerospace-rich Antelope Valley to demonstrate the importance of the region’s contributions to the nation’s security, and his efforts to encourage freshmen Republicans and Democrats to jointly push Gore’s “reinventing government” plan has fizzled.

Finally, McKeon has yet to get a single piece of legislation passed. But he points out that the goal of his first bill--to require the federal government to use recycled paper--was achieved through an executive order by Clinton. McKeon acknowledged the President didn’t necessarily get the idea from him, but he still called the result “sort of a victory.”

And he has delivered some modest benefits to his district: He helped gain Palmdale its designation as a Foreign Trade Zone and he got the House to approve $4.2 million to widen Magic Mountain Parkway between the Golden State Freeway and McBean Parkway and $1.2 million to widen congested California 138 in Palmdale. The funding measures are pending in the Senate.

But McKeon, who clearly relishes his role as a federal lawmaker, insists that his most important progress in his first session in Congress may be intangible.

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“If you do a good job over a period of time, you build respect,” McKeon said. “And, if you build respect, you can get things done. And I think I’ve done that.”

Nothing has impressed McKeon more during his indoctrination than the bare-knuckles partisanship that infuses Capitol Hill, according to longtime friends. McKeon often expresses frustration with what he regards as the Democrats’ heavy-handed tactics on the Education and Labor Committee, on which he sits.

“He’s been stunned by the degree of the polarity of the politics in Washington and how difficult it is to do anything that doesn’t run into that wall of differences between the Democrats and the Republicans,” said Thomas Lee, chairman of the Newhall Land & Farming Co. and a friend of McKeon’s for more than a decade.

Amid the partisan wrangling, McKeon has sought to carve out an image as a low-key, affable pragmatist even as he has established a bedrock conservative voting record. Liberal Democrats, including Rep. Eva M. Clayton (D-N.C.), the former Democratic freshman class president, have praised McKeon as someone with whom they can work despite their philosophical differences.

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“His rhetoric is not divisive and he doesn’t seem to turn feelings about issues into personality or ad hominem attacks,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who has observed McKeon from his neighboring district and worked with him on the earthquake measure.

“In part because of his personality, he has a certain effectiveness that surpasses the typical very conservative Republican in a Democratic-controlled House.”

‘I Am What I Am’

In 1993, McKeon sided with the conservative coalition on 95% of 44 votes that were assessed by Congressional Quarterly. He joined the Republican majority on 96% of 391 recorded votes and weighed in against Democrat Clinton more than two-thirds of the time, the magazine found.

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“I am what I am,” McKeon said. “And I vote and I feel that way. But I don’t hold personal grudges and I can work with people.”

NAFTA, which cut across party lines, is a rare case where McKeon supported the President. But he joined all other Republicans in voting against Clinton’s budget plan and he opposed the Brady gun-control bill and a more recent measure to ban assault weapons.

He is also against the President’s health care reform proposal, instead favoring a less far-reaching GOP health care approach.

McKeon says that he brings to health care--as he does to other issues--an appreciation for the real-world impact of governmental programs.

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For instance, he is strongly opposed to a proposal requiring employers to pay for 80% of employees’ insurance premiums. Howard & Phil’s Western Wear, the successful company that he ran with his brothers, provides no coverage for more than half its approximately 500 workers, McKeon said.

“There just isn’t the money in it to pay to provide health insurance for everybody,” McKeon said. “You work on the margins. It’s not there.”

James H. Gilmartin, a feisty Santa Clarita attorney, was McKeon’s Democratic opponent in 1992 and he’s running against him again in the district, which is overwhelmingly Republican. That has not stopped Gilmartin from nipping at McKeon’s cowboy-booted heels with one biting news release or barb after another.

One of his campaign slogans: “The ‘Buck’ Stops Here.”

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Gilmartin maintains that McKeon has fallen prey to the “Beltway syndrome” and has abandoned principles that he espoused during the 1992 campaign. “The change has been dramatic,” Gilmartin said. He cited NAFTA, term limits and campaign finance reform as examples.

McKeon attributed his about-face on the controversial free trade agreement to a commitment he made to a voter to protect local jobs during his initial campaign before he knew anything about NAFTA. Later, he said, when he became aware of the initiative’s potential economic benefits, particularly to Southern California, he decided to vote for the pact.

“That was an early lesson for Buck,” said Newhall Land’s Lee, a strong advocate of NAFTA. “He took a position early that I think he regretted and it was based on not having much knowledge of the issue. He found it necessary to change.”

Still Backs Term Limits

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McKeon, 55, still supports term limits for members of Congress and maintains that he will remain in office no more than 10 years. But he said in an interview last month that he now believes a California law adopted by voters in 1992 limiting the state’s representatives to six years was wrongheaded because it’s too restrictive, and the Golden State would give up its lawmakers’ valuable seniority. Instead, McKeon said he favors a national 12-year cap.

McKeon’s office received numerous calls from constituents who, upon reading his ruminations, expressed ire that he had backed off his commitment. In contrast, Berman, a term limits opponent, found his colleague’s comments refreshing.

“There are guys around here who are running for their 10th term in Congress and screaming about term limits,” Berman said. “The man has a level of intellectual honesty to at least acknowledge both sides of issues. There are a lot of people who won’t do that.”

On campaign finance, McKeon signed a pledge in 1992 to Common Cause, the citizens lobby, supporting its campaign reform goals. This included limiting campaign spending, further restricting contributions by special-interest political action committees and providing public resources such as free or discounted television time, mailings and matching payments.

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McKeon then voted against the campaign finance bill supported by Common Cause.

But McKeon maintains that he made it clear to Common Cause representatives in his district two years ago that he would not support public financing of campaigns--which was the reason he opposed the bill. Instead, he endorses a Republican-sponsored alternative that would completely ban PACs and that fulfills other Common Cause goals.

He indicated that he was aware that Common Cause backed public financing when he signed its form that said: “I publicly commit to support and vote for anti-corruption legislation that includes all of these essential elements of campaign finance reform.”

“I was kind of conned into it,” McKeon said. “They were basically not honest in their approach.”

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Monroe Pederson, a retired school administrator from Lancaster and a Common Cause volunteer, confirms that McKeon expressed his opposition to public financing when Pederson and two other volunteers met with him in August, 1992.

“He has always opposed public financing of election campaigns,” said Pederson, who added that he was perplexed by McKeon’s contention that he was misled. “We both agreed campaign reform was a necessary thing.”

McKeon does not appear overly concerned with Gilmartin, aside from wondering aloud about his opponent’s motivation. “It seems like it’s so personal with him,” McKeon said.

Rather, he said that he was most interested in paying off the $130,000 debt to himself left over from the hotly contested 1992 Republican primary. He had loaned the campaign $200,000. This time, he allowed, “it is a little easier as an incumbent” to raise campaign funds. According to McKeon’s July 15 campaign report, he had raised $84,741 in the first six months of this year and spent only $56,732. Nearly half his funds came from PACs, including $4,450 from the National Rifle Assn. and $2,000 from the American Medical Assn.

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At this point, he is busy helping Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) in his bid to become the Republican whip in the next Congress. McKeon, who is on Walker’s campaign steering committee, has written to members of the GOP freshman class and some Republican congressional candidates.

In addition, he has offered to help first-term Republican colleagues facing tough challenges. He has stumped for vulnerable Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), has steered contributors to fellow Republicans and expects to himself contribute to others’ campaigns, said Armando Azarloza, McKeon’s district director and chief political adviser.

These efforts could benefit McKeon if he seeks to advance within the House or run statewide. He has spoken to Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, about his interest in the panel’s next opening. And McKeon said he expects to be among the 25 to 50 members that Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is slated to become the Republican leader next year, plans “to rely on for different things.”

The Future

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Meanwhile, Azarloza and Virginia-based pollster Frank Luntz, who has done some work for McKeon, have discussed the prospect of the lawmaker seeking a House GOP leadership post or laying the groundwork for a statewide candidacy. Luntz calls McKeon “calm, cool and collected” and says his only shortcoming is that he’s “too willing to share the limelight.”

“One of the things we’ve discussed is how we get his message out to possibly a broader audience,” Azarloza said. “That message is a no-nonsense approach to government. That Buck is just a regular guy. That he’s not your typical politician. That he takes an independent approach: He believes in Republican principles but he wants to get things done.”

Asked about any inclination to run statewide in the future, McKeon smiled broadly.

“Armando keeps pushing,” he said with a laugh, disavowing interest in the governorship.

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“I wanted to come here to change the direction of the country. And it’s not just to do a political job. I said I would spend eight to 10 years doing that. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”


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