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Paying the High Price of Politics : Congress: Primary loss to Richard Sybert cost Robert Hammer and his family dearly in terms of money and dreams.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert K. Hammer stood on the sun-baked lawn of the Newbury Park home that his family has outgrown and pointed to a new and brighter subdivision being carved into a distant hillside. It might as well have been Shangri-La.

“That’s what my wife gave up so I could run for office,” the 44-year-old Hammer ruefully told a visitor two months after he lost his bid to be the Republican Party nominee in California’s 24th Congressional District.

In fact, sacrifice and heartache at times seem to be the legacy of Hammer’s yearlong tango with that often cruel and expensive blood sport of California politics, a sport that regularly leaves hundreds of its players disappointed, sometimes debt-ridden and frequently bewildered by their fate.

Last June 7, candidate Hammer joined the ranks of the walking wounded of politics when he came in second in the GOP primary, outpolled by party rival Richard Sybert, a former cabinet-level officer in Gov. Pete Wilson’s Administration who spent more than $300,000 on his own campaign--much of it his own money. Sybert will face U.S. Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) in November.

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“I could actually see myself in Washington,” Hammer said as he sat in his living room, a room decorated in a style that could be termed late 20th-Century earnest patriotism: Four tastefully framed watercolor scenes of Washington, including one of the Capitol and one of the White House, hang on one wall, while a print depicting the Founding Fathers at the 1789 Constitutional Convention graces another.

“It’s been the first time in a very long time that I’ve seen something so clearly, that I wanted and it didn’t come to pass,” Hammer added.

Nor are Hammer’s campaign trail sacrifices and epiphanies singular.

The hustings are littered with candidates who have spent their health, reputations, moral fiber, family ties and their own money toiling in the state’s political vineyards, only to find that just a few are chosen.

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For example, Ventura County businessman Sang Korman sank more than $750,000 of his own money into four unsuccessful congressional campaigns.

In 1980, Steve Afriat, now a successful political consultant who lives in Sherman Oaks, was among the battered and disappointed. Afriat, as a 27-year-old Democrat, ran that year for a San Fernando Valley-based state Assembly seat against GOP candidate Marion LaFollette.

Before the dust had settled, Afriat had persuaded his parents to mortgage their home to help finance his political habit. In 1980, Afriat lost by fewer than 700 votes to LaFollette.

But it was not until Afriat had lost a second Assembly race in 1982--by 3,000 votes--and accumulated $60,000 in campaign debts that he called it quits.

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“I had a very difficult time after losing the first race,” Afriat recalled. “I was emotionally depressed.” By the time he lost his second bid, Afriat was relieved, relieved the pain was over and he could get on with his life.

Hammer also knows the special pain of competing--and losing.

During one crowded year in the political arena, the maw of politics swallowed up Hammer family birthdays, outings and anniversaries, and Hammer’s job as a self-employed banking consultant went begging amid a blur of engagements to speak to Republican women’s clubs, walk precincts and make fund-raising appeals.

“My wife and I spent the weekend of our silver anniversary manning a booth at the Conejo Valley Days festival,” said Hammer, whose voice still carries hints of his Kansas roots. It was 30 hours of smiling, shaking hands and telling the Bob Hammer story to milling, often indifferent, throngs--all in the name of politics. “He must have met half of Thousand Oaks at the fair,” recalled Ken Calcutt, a fair organizer.

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On the campaign trail, Hammer found himself exposed to the inevitable slings and arrows, including efforts to belittle both his business experience and his sporadic voting record.

The slights still rankle Hammer, the father of 17- and 23-year-old daughters, so much that he has refused to endorse Sybert, failing thereby to abide by an unwritten law of party politics.

“To have my daughters read things that the other candidates were saying about me in the newspapers that were untrue--that was hard,” Hammer said.

And finally there was the $68,700 of Hammer family life savings that was placed on the altar of the political dream, money that had been earmarked to buy a new, bigger home. The fund-raising ability of a defeated political candidate being virtually nil, Hammer is now resigned to the fact that his “loans” to the campaign will never be repaid.

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“The only thing I didn’t do was mortgage the house,” Hammer said, sounding almost like a recovering addict.

Hammer’s own retired parents, residents of Lawrence, Kan., were supportive but also perturbed by his adventure in politics. “But they didn’t have the advantage of all the soul-searching we had done before we launched this,” Hammer said. “I wouldn’t have risked 25 years of business experience and nearly $70,000 of our life savings unless I felt strongly about this and thought I could win.”

Hammer first considered running against Beilenson in 1992, a quest nipped in the bud when Tom McClintock, a GOP standard-bearer from Ventura County, threw his hat into the ring.

But the dream would not die, fueled as it was by a desire to “serve my country,” said Hammer, who lived in Kansas most of his life and moved to Iowa in his late ‘30s with his family (he met his wife at their alma mater, Emporia State University, in Emporia, Kan.).

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Hammer became a vice president of marketing with Norwest Corp., a Midwest-based bankholding company. In 1986, Hammer took up residency in California as a credit card executive with First Interstate Bank.

In 1969, Hammer had felt the same desire to serve tugging at his sleeve and joined the U. S. Marines, doing a four-month stint in Vietnam as an intelligence officer. “It was not the popular thing to do then, but I had a strong feeling that I wanted to serve my country,” said Hammer, who vaguely traces his public service sentiments to his upbringing and to the boyhood influence of one of Kansas’ most famous native sons, Dwight Eisenhower.

As he considered a possible political future, Hammer took several people into his confidence to discuss his dream. One of these was Wayne Lee, then-publisher of the Simi Valley Enterprise, a community activist, a Republican and, perhaps most important of all, a fellow Kansan.

Hammer was a rare breed, according to Lee, now the editor-publisher of the Hutchinson (Kan.) News. “He was a very sincere and thoughtful person who had reached a stage in his adult life where he wanted to serve his country,” said Lee, who used to receive long letters from Hammer about his travels (Hammer’s credit card work has frequently sent him abroad).

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“He’d have been a real ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ type if he’d been elected,” Lee speculated. “But I told him after years of covering politics that it takes three things to win: money, money and money.”

After a particularly good stretch in his private consulting business, Hammer in 1992 decided he had enough personal financial reserves that he could stop working for a year and give wings to his dream of public office.

As Hammer calculated it, 24th Congressional District Republicans--with their fiscal conservatism, moderate social views and skepticism about professional politicians--should have been ripe to be picked by his candidacy.

“I thought the time was right for a citizen politician,” Hammer said. “With my perspectives as a businessman, a former soldier and a father of two children, I thought I was a close match to the average citizen. And I was willing to take a pay cut to go to Washington.”

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It was vision, vague though it sometimes was, that attracted a sturdy band of followers, not the least being Pat Cook, president of the Encino Republican Women’s Federated Club. Cook personally interviewed the top GOP candidates--Hammer, Sybert and Mark Boos Benhard--before she decided to go with Hammer and spend seven days a week working on his campaign.

“You know, it may be that Bob was too much of a gentleman for politics,” Cook said recently. “If you don’t have a million bucks and can’t get into the name calling, it sometimes looks like you’re not fit for it. . . . You have to have a cutthroat mentality. Bob was naive. I guess maybe we all were.”

Now, not much tangible remains of the Hammer’s $70,000 investment in politics but a few unused yard signs, crafted with touchingly naive simplicity in the shape of hammers and a collection of photographs.

But there are some fond memories and hard lessons.

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One of those lessons: While winning in politics is about idealism and ideas, it is also about money--lots of it, more than Hammer had or could raise.

“We all decry checkbook politics, but then we find that money establishes a pecking order in the eyes of party officials and the media,” Hammer said. “It boils down to this--$400,000 is greater than $100,000. If I’d had more money to put up front, it might have been different.” Sybert contributed $400,000 of his own money to his campaign, and with $30,000 in donations from contributors, Hammer had a campaign budget of about $100,000.

Another lesson, also difficult for Hammer to swallow, was that it may be playing a fool’s game to take the high road in a campaign.

“That’s the biggest question in my mind,” his wife, Malinda, said recently when asked if winning at politics and playing above board were mutually exclusive.

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“In our case, it didn’t work,” Hammer quickly added. “Maybe if there’s a next time, we’ll run a campaign that’s a little smarter and more streetwise.”

But not all of the lessons of the campaign were hard ones, Hammer said.

“There was a woman who gave up her presidency of a civic club so she could work on my campaign, and the stockbroker who laid his business aside to help out,” Hammer said, reciting these as only a few examples of the commitment of people who were part of what he called his “volunteer corps.”

“I would say this about running for office,” he said. “You can never be humiliated if you run because you believe what you are doing is right. But you can be humbled by the support others give to you. I sure was.”

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The campaign also broadened his perspective on life in general, said Hammer, who several times sought out nitty-gritty opportunities for personal experience to deepen his understanding of social issues. “I got an education about a lot of things, including what it means to be policeman, homeless and a teen-age runaway,” he said.

“During the Christmas holidays, Malinda and I served food to the homeless at a temple in Thousand Oaks. A lot of what I was struck by was that the people on the other side of the serving line were much like me--professional people, with families--except I had a job.”

But now, two months after the election, Hammer has a lot of work to do, putting his life and family finances back on an even keel.

“I came pretty close to being broke financially, but I’m not broken,” he said.

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“I said to Malinda at one point during the campaign: ‘It’s a pretty bumpy ride, and I guess I’m going to owe you big time when it’s over,’ ” Hammer said recently. “And she said: ‘Big time, honey, big time.’

“When all is said and done, I’ll be spending a good part of the rest of my natural life making up for this.”


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