Ex-Candidate Is Paying High Price of Politics


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 a congressional district that encompasses Thousand Oaks and portions of the San Fernando Valley.

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.

Last June 7, candidate Hammer joined the ranks of the walking wounded of politics when he came in second in the GOP primary. He was 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.


“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.

During his busy year, 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,” Hammer said. It was 30 hours of smiling, shaking hands and telling his story.


“He must have met half of Thousand Oaks at the fair,” recalled Ken Calcutt, a fair organizer.

On the campaign trail, Hammer found himself exposed to his opponent’s attempts 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.

“The only thing I didn’t do was mortgage the house,” Hammer said.

Hammer’s 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 that ended when former Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) threw his hat into the ring.


But his dream to serve his country wouldn’t die, 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.).

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 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,” Lee said.

“He’d have been a real ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ type if he’d been elected,” Lee said. “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 pursue 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.”

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.”

The campaign left Hammer with fond memories and hard lessons.


“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.”

Hammer said he was humbled by the support he received from volunteers and others who believed in his candidacy. “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,” he said.

The campaign also broadened his perspective on life. “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, (my wife) 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.

“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.”