24th District Race for House Seat Promises to Be Interesting : So far, Rep. Anthony Beilenson has beaten all challenges, from redistricting to political rivals, but there is yet another this year: Republican Richard Sybert.
People have been out to get U.S. Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) for 18 years. It’s not only the candidates who have run against him since 1976. It’s even other elected officials who have twice tried to reapportion him back to his private law practice. Each time, Beilenson has beaten back the challenges to hold on to his seat while the pundits were writing his political obituary.
Beilenson’s first race in the 24th District, which straddles the Santa Monica Mountains, was against Tom Bartman, who was later to serve on the L.A. Board of Education. Bartman won the San Fernando Valley’s flatlands. Beilenson won the Westside. They split the hillsides. The Westside’s weight was enough to give Beilenson the office.
Those who reapportion congressional seats have tried to give Beilenson a district that he would have a tough time holding on to. In 1981, the late Rep. Phil Burton punished Beilenson for refusing his support for House majority leader. Burton moved Beilenson’s district farther into the Valley to make room for districts he had tailored for Howard Berman and Mel Levine. School board member David Armor raised a big war chest in 1982, with help from the national Republican establishment. He lost to Beilenson by nearly 47,000 votes.
In 1991, the politicians considered Beilenson expendable. Liberal-leaning Westsiders were needed to shore up other Democrat districts. So the Legislature pushed his district even farther from its roots. It now encompasses a smaller Westside portion and the entire southwest Valley stretching west to Thousand Oaks.
In 1992, he was challenged by Assemblyman Tom McClintock, whose Assembly district was centered in Thousand Oaks and who had participated in drawing the district’s new boundaries. McClintock didn’t even match Armor’s showing.
Despite all the boundary changes, Beilenson’s remains one of California’s highest per-capita-income congressional districts. Its voters are overwhelmingly Anglo. They are mostly professional and managerial. It’s full of families who own their own homes. It’s the American Dream district.
The Valley and the other-points-west portions of his district tend to vote more conservatively than Beilenson. This was Reagan country in 1980 and 1984. It went narrowly for George Bush in 1988. It went for Bill Clinton in 1992 by a smaller margin than other suburban areas of Los Angeles County. But, each time, even the Valley portion went solidly for Beilenson.
One of Beilenson’s traditional strengths with voters has been his unwillingness to compromise his principles in return for support. If he disagrees with you, he will tell you so straight out and tell you why he feels the way he does. If you still disagree, it’s OK with him. People of good will sometimes disagree.
Despite a parade of “sacrificial lamb” candidates who have been put up against him with little chance to win, Beilenson still debates each one of them multiple times. Audiences typically come away saying, “I may not agree with his positions, but he believes in what he says.”
In his 31 years in public office, Beilenson has played the role of maverick. His independent streak may be one reason his Democrat colleagues have twice tried to reapportion him out of office.
Beilenson also has a knack for surprising even his most ardent supporters. He wrote an article some years ago suggesting that Social Security benefits be taxed. Taking that position is the closest thing to political suicide any politician can commit. Nearly 40 million senior citizens, who vote in higher numbers than any other group, have crucified politicians for less. Beilenson survives.
Several years ago he co-sponsored a Republican congressman’s bill to deny automatic citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. Liberal groups were outraged. Beilenson survives.
His opponent this time, Richard Sybert, is a former Pete Wilson appointee who moved into the district to run. He is employing the now familiar tactic of using a portion of his sizable wealth to finance his campaign. That funding helped him outdistance a large field in the Republican primary.
Sybert’s themes mirror those of past opponents--Beilenson is too liberal for the district, he’s been there too long, he doesn’t really live here, he’s part of the House leadership that’s been obstructing meaningful legislation for years.
Yet on this page two weeks ago when both candidates put forth their visions of welfare reform, with some minor exceptions, both proposals were the same. Strikingly, both leaned toward a traditional conservative point of view.
At this point, both candidates are doing the fund-raising and organizing work that has to be done to finance the mailings that will overflow mailboxes in the final weeks of the campaign. Sybert will bring more funds than the usual challenger to the fight. But others in the past have brought hefty war chests to the battle only to be defeated handily by Beilenson.
Interestingly, the challenger is grousing that the incumbent is doing opposition research on him. Most challengers don’t have a public service record to attack. Sybert does, and Beilenson’s operatives are moving to take whatever advantage they can of any missteps Sybert may have made.
Will Sybert’s anti-incumbent message hit home this time? Will lack of political coverage produced by the O.J. Simpson trial during the last six weeks of the campaign help or hurt the incumbent? Will the campaign fall off the issues wagon into the muddle of name-calling ooze?
As the election approaches, I will look at the issues and styles separating the two candidates and the course of their campaigns as they enter the home stretch. Stay tuned. This one could be interesting.