Wives Called Upon to Help Their Husbands on the Hustings : Campaigning: Women are playing key roles as symbols of domestic values in local races. Some say the trend is a reaction against feminism.
Maybe it has to do with family values, feminism or schmaltz, but San Fernando Valley candidates are pressing their wives--and in one case, a fiancee--into service on the political firing line to defend and promote them as the Nov. 8 election nears.
Already Valley voters have received letters from the wives of two GOP candidates, one a handwritten missive from Christine Rogan, wife of the state assemblyman, that begins: “I have just tucked my twin girls into bed and I’m waiting for my husband Jim to come home from a meeting with a constituent.”
Voters have also been informed that a third candidate, a Democrat, will be tying the nuptial knot Feb. 19 to the woman shown leaning lovingly on him in a photo in his latest campaign brochure.
And there’s plenty of the traditional family displays that are endemic to campaigns. For example, the flyer from U. S. Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), now seeking reelection, features the virtually obligatory candidate-with-wife-and-family photo.
But despite evidence that candidates’ family members often grin and bear the demands of campaigning, they sometimes balk. Take the case of Greta Sybert, the wife of GOP congressional candidate Richard Sybert, who is challenging Beilenson.
Greta Sybert recently resisted her husband’s plan to challenge Beilenson to join him in offering voters an open-house tour of their respective local homes, a stunt designed to show that Sybert has a “real” house in the district (the Syberts live in Calabasas), while Beilenson, the incumbent, rents an apartment in Woodland Hills.
“We’re still trying to convince Greta (Sybert) to let us go ahead with it,” campaign manager James Vaughn said last week. “But she wants her home to be part of her private life.” Greta Sybert declined to be interviewed for this story.
Of course, women have long played powerful, if varied, roles in their husband’s political careers, from Dolley Madison to Hillary Rodham Clinton to Arianna Huffington.
“Using the wife is a time-honored political technique,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate School.
Nevertheless, political observers are intrigued by the more intense political uses of wives and girlfriends. “It fits right in with the politics of virtue and family values” to use a wife as a symbol of domestic values, Jeffe maintained.
“Maybe the subtext of this kind of campaigning is an attempt to capitalize on some kind of backlash against the Hillary Clinton-type political wife,” speculated Susan Rasky, a former New York Times political reporter who now teaches journalism at UC Berkeley.
Others are less dispassionate. “This is un-feminist, Beaver Cleaver-era silly stuff,” contended Judith Hirshberg, president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus, reviewing some of the uses to which Valley wives have been put in the current political season.
“The ‘wife letter’ is what I call them,” said Sacramento GOP consultant Jim Nygren, who helped Christine Rogan, wife of state Assemblyman James Rogan (R-Glendale), put together the four-page handwritten letter that recently went to local voters with her preamble about tucking in the kids.
“They often get the biggest response of anything I do,” Nygren said of this political genre. Christine Rogan declined to be interviewed for this story.
Nor are politicians’ wives or prospective wives the only family members to get tapped.
Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, a Studio City resident who is single, dispatched a letter from his 82-year-old mother to Jewish voters calling her son a “mensch” (a sensible person) as part of his 1993 campaign for mayor. Meanwhile, Pat Maguire, an openly gay candidate in the Democratic primary for the 41st District state Assembly seat, tapped his mom to do a mailer for him last spring.
And when a mother is not available, there’s always dad. Attorney Edward Tabash, who also ran in the fiercely fought 41st District Democratic primary, had his father send a letter to voters--with a potholder.
“Edward’s mother passed away in 1985, she would have loved to send you this potholder as a reminder to vote for our son,” Abraham Tabash wrote, as he also outlined some of his son’s policy stands.
Meanwhile, Christine Rogan’s letter, with a “Dear Friend” salutation, was targeted at about 30,000 women in the district--both Democrats and Republicans, Nygren said.
“It’s an attempt to give the candidate a human dimension,” Nygren said of the Christine Rogan letter.
Nygren won’t say it, but others contend that the letter is more specifically designed to mitigate Rogan’s image among moderate women voters, who might be turned off by the candidate’s ties to right-wing Christian foes of abortion. “It’s meant to soften him up,” said Steve Gray-Barkan, consultant to Adam Schiff, Rogan’s Democratic opponent.
Nor are the wives relegated simply to gushing over their husbands or distributing campaign yard signs.
Christine Rogan’s letter, for example, seeks to deal with accusations by Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, that Rogan is a captive of right-wing Christians who want to use government to advance their agenda of banning abortion and teaching creationism, and that Rogan failed to live up to his self-made image as a tough fiscal conservative when he accepted a $20,000 pay hike for legislators.
“I can’t help but laugh when Adam Schiff tries to paint Jim as some sort of greedy politician,” Christine Rogan wrote. “Not only did Jim wash dishes to stay off welfare (as a teen-ager growing up in a poor family), but he took a 50% pay cut as a corporate attorney to become a prosecutor trying gang murder cases” before winning a judgeship appointment and then being elected to the Assembly in a May, 1994, special election.
Meanwhile, as family values have circled the campaign--Rogan recently told a debate audience that if Schiff had a family, he’d appreciate why he accepted the pay hike--Schiff has played his own domestic card by introducing his fiancee, Eve Sanderson, to voters in his campaign literature.
While early Schiff literature includes a photo of the pair and identifies them as affianced, later renditions tell voters the actual date of the wedding. It looks like the Schiff campaign is fighting fire with fire, one political analyst speculated.
At a recent debate, Schiff also introduced Sanderson, who had been sitting in the audience (actively booing Rogan at times). “We are, in fact, Adam and Eve,” Schiff joked.
Nor has the involvement of the wives been confined to letter-writing.
GOP congressional candidate Sybert has been particularly active in involving his wife in his campaign.
During a campaign year marked by controversy over illegal immigration, Sybert--who supports Proposition 187, the measure to deny benefits to illegals--has insisted that his views are not informed by raw nativism, that he supports quality legal immigration.
Here, he has pointed to Greta (a Brazilian native who is not yet a U. S. citizen) as the ideal immigrant.
“With her work skills and college education, she is exactly the kind of person we should encourage to live here,” Sybert told The Times during an interview in July.
On another occasion, during a GOP primary candidate forum in Thousand Oaks, where the talk had turned to immigration, Sybert introduced his wife by saying, according to a California Journal reporter: “That’s the kind of immigration policy we need--where we skim off all the pretty women from these countries.”
And while Greta Sybert does not have a U. S. passport, she has helped provide her husband with a passport of sorts to the congressional seat he seeks.
Sybert has cited the fact that his wife graduated from Newbury Park High School as a sign of his ties to the 24th District--even though he himself set up housekeeping in the district only a year ago.
Greta Sybert also has been pressed to add a human dimension to her husband and possibly shield him from future political attacks, according to Jeffe, the Claremont political analyst.
In a letter to voters recently, Greta assured readers that her husband--an avowed policy wonk--won’t forget them if he beats Beilenson and goes to Washington. Her husband, Greta Sybert also averred, got into politics to make the world a better place for their 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and other children like her.
Greta Sybert also warns voters against the coming attacks on her husband and all but asks voters to take pity on the Sybert family during these hard times.
“The political attacks and distortions about my husband Rich Sybert are hard on me. And they’re hard on our daughter Stephanie, too, because children sense when their parents are hurt or upset,” Greta Sybert wrote in her two-page letter to voters of Oct. 21.
In the same letter, Greta Sybert also revealed to her readers that “sometimes my feet are so tired that Rich has to practically carry me home” after a day of precinct walking with her husband.
“This looks like an attempt to inoculate the candidate from future attack by trying to build up a bond of sympathy with the voters,” Jeffe said. And it’s a campaign ploy, she added, that’s as old as the hills.
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