Serving up one of the country's most titillating congressional races, the Republican incumbent here is hoping that the party faithful are either forgetful or forgiving that he was caught by police with a prostitute last year, and will understand why he is delinquent in paying some of his property taxes.
Freshman Rep. Ken Calvert, 41, said he believes he has weathered the run-in with the prostitute, which did not lead to criminal charges, and he said the $16,000 property tax bill will be paid as soon as entangled divorce proceedings are completed.
"I'm moving forward with the attitude that the people in my district are more concerned with the issues," he said.
But the issues seem to be playing a secondary role in this campaign. Calvert's Democratic opponent, 33-year-old schoolteacher Mark Takano, has found himself under attack by a Republican ally of Calvert's who is insisting that Takano is gay.
Takano, who delights in bringing up Calvert's problems, said the claim was made solely to take the heat off Calvert's embarrassments.
"I don't think it matters," Takano said in declining to discuss whether he is gay. "I don't think the voters in this district will make a decision based on that."
And so, in an otherwise boilerplate campaign--the Democrat saying his opponent is an ineffective congressman who spends too much money, and the Republican saying his foe will be a yes man to President Clinton--the race in the 43rd Congressional District, a Republican bastion on paper, is now something of a wild card.
The Calvert-Takano contest is one of several in the Inland Empire being closely monitored for possible upsets.
In the 42nd Congressional District in San Bernardino, patriarch Democratic incumbent George Brown, who has represented the area since 1972, has watched his share of votes drop from 54% in 1988 to 53% in 1990 to 51% in 1992.
This year, Brown, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, faces a wealthy Rancho Cucamonga businessman, Republican Rob Guzman, who hopes to tap the district's Latino vote.
In the open 44th Congressional District of eastern Riverside County, songster-turned-businessman Sonny Bono is hoping that his name identity and newfound conservative Republican credentials will carry him to Washington over moderate Democrat Steve Clute, who served 10 years in the state Assembly.
The district typically votes conservative and the retiring congressman, Al McCandless, is Republican, but Clute says Bono is ill-equipped to withstand the political rigors of Washington.
In the open 36th Senate District, being vacated by Democrat Robert Presley, fellow Democrat Kay Ceniceros, banking on the bipartisan support she nurtured during 14 years as a county supervisor, faces conservative, one-term Republican Assemblyman Ray Haynes. The district covers southern Riverside and northern San Diego counties and is weighted with Republican voters.
Ceniceros is hoping that Republicans will find Haynes too conservative even for their tastes--although Haynes easily defeated the popular Riverside County sheriff in the party's June primary.
Haynes, who raised the issue of Takano's sexual orientation, speaks of "liberal environmental wackos who care more about bugs and bunnies than people who need jobs."
"If we can't win this seat," he said, "we're really inept."
Calvert talks just as confidently about winning reelection in his congressional race, but others are not so sure.
Largely because he was caught last November with the prostitute--and later admitted he considered fleeing from the approaching police officer in a moment of panic--Washington's political spectators have identified Calvert as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the capital.
Capitalizing on Calvert's indiscretions, a conservative college professor came within 1,000 votes of upsetting the incumbent in the Republican primary in June, out of 40,000 votes cast.
"Voters were absolutely livid over the Calvert incident; he's a weak Republican and we almost took him out," said Bob Gouty, a longtime Republican strategist who ran the primary campaign of Calvert's opponent.
On the other hand, Takano may lose votes in the socially conservative district by declining to say whether he is gay or not after questions about his sexual orientation were raised by Haynes, Gouty said.
The November election is a rematch between Calvert and Takano, with decidedly different wrinkles. In 1992, Takano, who serves as a community college trustee, struck within 500 votes of beating Calvert for the newly constituted congressional seat, riding high on candidate Bill Clinton's popularity despite the district's Republican voter base.
"If it wasn't for the (prostitute) incident, most people would say this is a safe Republican district this year," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former political director for the California Republican Party.
Confounding the picture for Calvert are Libertarian candidate Gene Berkman and Republican-turned-independent write-in candidate Bob Lynn, each of whom is more likely to drain votes from Calvert than Takano.
Hoffenblum said he suspects that the issue of Takano's sexual orientation was calculatedly raised by Haynes to divert negative attention from Calvert to Takano.
Haynes said he characterized Takano as a "liberal homosexual Democrat" during a closed-door meeting of fellow Republicans, and was surprised to find the comments published later. Still, he does not shy away from them.
"Everyone knows he's a homosexual," Haynes said in an interview. "It's no major-league secret."
Calvert said he will not discuss Takano's sexual orientation, although Calvert's campaign manager, Ed Slevin, remarks that the Democrat would fare better "in San Francisco."
Although Takano's written campaign material makes no reference to Calvert's encounter with the prostitute, his campaign staff freely distributes press clippings of the incident, and a Takano radio commercial hits directly on the unpaid taxes. In interviews, Takano raises both matters as indicators of Calvert's "failed leadership."
The $16,000 owed by Calvert reflects assessments on one of 16 parcels he owns or manages in Riverside County, said Calvert, who has owned restaurants and run an industrial real estate firm. The parcel in question, he said, is entangled in the property settlement of his divorce. When the settlement is reached, he said, the taxes will be repaid with interest.
He boasts that over the years he has paid more than $1 million in property taxes, while Takano, "who is single and lives with his parents, has paid none."
In his own campaign handouts, Calvert does make cloaked reference to the prostitute incident, in which Corona police found him parked along the side of a road, disheveled but with no evidence of money changing hands and neither party claiming to be a victim of a crime.
"Yes, I have made mistakes," he wrote. "But I believe I have been an asset to our community, and believe that a lifetime of hard work and responsible behavior cannot be erased by one mistake, regardless of how many times my opponent talks about it."
Four months after being caught with the prostitute, Calvert publicly acknowledged it. He said he was "feeling intensely lonely" after a hard week in Washington and reeling from his father's suicide and his wife's request for a divorce.