Moving From the Fringe to the Forefront : Politics: O.C.'s Dana Rohrabacher is having fun with his newfound clout.
As a White House speech writer, he put words in the mouth of the Great Communicator. From John Wayne, he learned that a squeeze of lime helps the tequila go down. Like compatriot Oliver North, he sneaked into foreign countries with Indiana Jones derring-do to spur on freedom fighters.
Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher, the 48-year-old bearded surfer and conservative congressman from Huntington Beach, lives his politics on the edge. There’s no middle ground and little room for compromise.
Whether it’s illegal immigrants or affluent constituents, Rohrabacher has matter-of-factly told them where to get off the public dole.
Now, with Republicans running Capitol Hill, the four-term congressman’s blunt rhetoric echoes with more authority--against the Chinese, Vietnamese and other “gangsters” he says violate human rights; against the defenders of affirmative action and the environmentalists he labels “the worst liars in the world.”
His biggest fans say he’s principled. His adversaries call him names not suitable for print. He styles himself a “truth teller” who operates under the assumption that he is correct in his beliefs.
What is incontrovertible is that Rohrabacher, once dismissed as a member of the right-wing fringe, is a player in this new Republican Congress. Like the dancing elephants on a favorite red tie, it is Rohrabacher who is frolicking now.
Where Rohrabacher’s attacks against China might have “seemed outlandish” just a few months ago, one Asia watcher says, he is now an emerging voice on Southeast Asia. “I think the State Department does see [Rohrabacher] as one of many problems that it has, with [North Carolina Republican Sen.] Jesse Helms at the top of the list,” he said.
Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), a House Democratic leader who has lost immigration debates to Rohrabacher but worked with him on refugee issues, said the Orange County congressman is “definitely having an impact as a member of the majority [party].”
True to his personal motto, “Fighting for freedom and having fun,” Rohrabacher reaches beyond his assignments on the International Relations and Science committees. He charges ahead against illegal immigration, gleefully wields the budget ax and gladly leads freshmen lawmakers to the front lines for the Republican cause of the day.
The downside to his outspokenness, Rohrabacher acknowledges, is that he doesn’t “get romanced” by his party’s leadership, because he’s unbending on his positions.
Rohrabacher is cocky, passionate, tireless. He talks tough, walks fast, rides his colleagues, pounces on his foes, and parties with chili and tequila--almost to the point of exhaustion for everyone but himself.
“I should smile more. It takes the edge off, even when it’s taken out of context,” Rohrabacher says, as he races along the concrete walk leading to the Capitol subway. “I really have to do that. It’s something I haven’t learned to do yet.”
But no amount of smiling can appease fellow conservative Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Pasadena), who has clashed with Rohrabacher over competing patent protection bills.
“He badgers folks until they sign his bill. They do it to get rid of him,” Moorhead groused.
Rohrabacher’s doggedness, however, also wins him respect.
Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), who doesn’t usually share Rohrabacher’s views, says his colleague on the Science Committee “was not treated very seriously in the past” when he pushed for development of a reusable space vehicle that could replace the space shuttles and reduce costs. Roemer adds: “That perception has changed because of his tenacity on the issue.”
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the architect of the House immigration reform bill, says of Rohrabacher’s push for more extreme controls: “Nothing will distract him when he’s talking to you. He comes at you like a cruise missile. He’s not going to be sidetracked.”
It’s easy to see why Rohrabacher is sometimes considered a grandstander or an eccentric. His guitar stands in Newt Gingrich’s office suite, awaiting the day the House Speaker has “five minutes” to hear a schmaltzy ballad Rohrabacher wrote called “God Bless.”
With all the subtlety of an oil rig off the California coast--whose presence Rohrabacher supports--he touts his song as the GOP’s new anthem.
Almost legendary are his off-white pants, worn with a blue-and-white seersucker sports coat long before Forrest Gump made it fashionable, with an American flag sticking out of his breast pocket; the white tennis shoes and socks he used to wear with a suit and the psychedelic shirt with a painter’s hat and pants he once sported to an informal budget meeting.
It’s an attitude that says, “You can be conservative and be cool too.”
Even when Rohrabacher is dressed in the requisite Washington suit and tie, his soft patch of rumpled hair and squint-eyed look leave the impression that the always impatient congressman would rather be in a wet suit, surfing in the Pacific Ocean.
Critics, including fellow Republicans, say his “Joe College” routine--which includes driving around Southern California with a surfboard protruding from his car--is an act. And Rohrabacher knows that’s what people think.
“It’s just like people who think, ‘He sings; he’s just a performer. The reason he likes to surf is he’s performing for people,’ ” Rohrabacher says. “I’m not a guy pretending to take huge waves, but it’s me. I’m not an A-plus surfer, I’m a C-plus surfer, but I’m having a heck of a time.”
What you’re seeing, says Gingrich press secretary Tony Blankley, who has known Rohrabacher for two decades, is a “remarkably honest” person who does not feel the pressure of Washington politics “to suppress his natural personality.”
That personality developed in the home of a Marine fighter pilot, where Rohrabacher, the second son and an Eagle Scout, was influenced by early images of heroism: a next-door neighbor whose father had been shot down in a past war and the news of pro-democracy Hungarians who were standing up to Communist tanks with pistols and rifles.
At 17, Rohrabacher injured his leg playing third-string varsity football for Palos Verdes High, ending his career in the sport. He used the extra time during his recuperation to become the campus organizer for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign.
He was drawn to Goldwater after reading the senator’s “Conscience of a Conservative,” the 123-page manifesto that proclaimed that a stifling government limits an individual’s pursuit of freedom.
Hearing rumors that the Goldwater campaign headquarters was going to be ransacked, Rohrabacher spent the Halloween night before the election keeping vigil from a tree outside the office. No one showed up.
“I spent the whole night in the tree. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my whole life in that same damn tree guarding the Republic,” Rohrabacher wrote in his recently completed, 250-page autobiography, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Surfing,” for which he has yet to find a publisher.
The political activist was born, guided by Goldwater’s challenge: “What do you believe and do you have the strength of your convictions?”
Rohrabacher’s convictions, however, became bogged down in the excesses of the 1960s.
While a college student in the late 1960s at what is now Cal State Long Beach, Rohrabacher became the California co-chairman of the ultra-conservative Young Americans for Freedom, only to be removed because he embraced libertarianism.
He later became a hippie; met John Wayne, who taught him how to drink tequila; wrote anarchistic song lyrics; went to Vietnam in the summer of 1967 and to Czechoslovakia a year later to work with anti-communist students, and, according to some who said they were there with him, dropped acid at Disneyland.
Rohrabacher acknowledges his past drug use, but won’t go into details: “I did make some mistakes, but it was so long ago that it’s no longer relevant.”
Opposed to United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War--yet turned off by anti-war demonstrations because “they were run by pro-communists"--Rohrabacher received a draft exemption after producing an X-ray of his football-injured hip.
In July, 1971, Rohrabacher and his fiancee, Linda Moreno, erected a big cross in San Pedro’s Peck Park and exchanged wedding vows before a Baptist minister and about 100 family members and friends. In true libertarian form, they didn’t officially record the marriage, so there was no formal divorce when they split up three years later.
There was, however, a television appearance on “The Newlywed Game.” With Rohrabacher on strike from his $316-per-week radio news reporting job, the young couple needed money. They won a Pontiac Ventura.
Rohrabacher’s interest in journalism eventually gave way to politics. He worked on Ronald Reagan’s failed 1976 presidential campaign; became, in his words, the “Thomas Paine” for a pro-independence movement on a chain of South Pacific islands; dabbled in screenwriting, and eventually became a White House speech writer after Reagan’s 1980 election.
As the most conservative--if not libertarian--writer, Rohrabacher “would complain that his speech had been ‘Gergenized,’ ” said Blankley, referring to Reagan adviser David Gergen, the moderate Republican who later joined the Clinton White House.
In 1988, he returned to California, rented a room, and ran for Congress in a district stretching from the Palos Verdes Peninsula through Long Beach to northern Orange County.
“I don’t believe he knew two people when he finally came back to run for Congress,” says Alan Hoffenblum, the political consultant who took on the campaign only after Rohrabacher proved he could raise start-up money. “He was dogged, and dogged, and dogged.”
The “big question” at the time, Hoffenblum remembered, was Rohrabacher’s beard. The consultant feared conservative voters who made up 34% of the electorate they had targeted would never stand for it.
“I said, ‘Dana, you have to shave the beard.’ He wouldn’t listen to us. He refused to shave the beard,” Hoffenblum says. The beard, along with poster-size photos of Rohrabacher and Reagan, and a fund-raiser with Oliver North, helped Rohrabacher stand out from the pack and win the Republican primary.
Rohrabacher quickly tried to adopt Reagan’s method of being “very tough on policy, but very good to people.” The uncompromising tone was his own.
A week after being elected to Congress, Rohrabacher sneaked into Myanmar, then known as Burma, and promised a crowd of more than 800 anti-government students he would seek the United States’ support for their cause. He had neither consulted U.S. nor Burmese authorities, the latter of whom were restricting foreigners from entering the country after the army crushed a series of student-led demonstrations.
When the Chinese government recently detained Chinese-American human rights activist Harry Wu, for example, Rohrabacher’s unrestrained cowboyism burst through in the form of a threat: “The Communist bosses in Beijing are shooting themselves in the head [by holding Wu.] . . . The Chinese government is dealing with Americans now, and we are sticking together.”
Former New York Democratic Rep. Stephen Solarz, the House’s expert on Asia when he was in office, says Rohrabacher “is acting responsibly in calling attention to a pattern of Chinese behavior that is a legitimate concern. I’m not sure I agree with his implication that China is irremediably lost.”
On the domestic front, opinions of Rohrabacher are more harsh. Mention his name to Warner Chabot of the Center for Marine Conservation, and he replies: “Destroyer of the environment, Neanderthal, de-evolutionist.”
Rohrabacher surfs the ocean, Chabot charged, yet he is leading the Republican anti-environmentalist agenda, “with blindfolds on and chain-saw swinging.”
As chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, Rohrabacher led the Republican effort to cut spending on projects such as large-scale fusion energy research and grants to corporations to develop energy conservation products, out of his belief that the federal government should fund only what cannot be done in the private sector. He also voted to dilute the Clean Water Act.
One critic notes the irony of Rohrabacher criticizing global warming studies as “junk science,” while delivering on the House floor a passionate defense of funding for sonoluminescence, a fusion energy research project derived from bombarding water with sound waves to create air bubbles that flash light. (Rohrabacher said this is an example of small-scale, low-cost “basic research” projects that should be supported by the federal government.)
Rohrabacher sees himself as a responsible guardian of the environment.
The lawmaker’s acerbic rhetoric against affirmative action and illegal immigrants also prompts strong reaction from Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza: “I would have to describe him as someone who has distinguished himself as the most xenophobic, anti-Latino congressman who ever walked the halls of Congress.”
Rohrabacher was one of the founders of the Proposition 187 movement--the 1994 ballot measure limiting public benefits to illegal immigrants. And following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, he and Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) won approval of legislation that denied non-emergency earthquake relief to illegal immigrants.
He claimed illegal immigrants were receiving millions of dollars meant for Californians, basing his finding on the fact that he walked past the line of people waiting for assistance and no one was “speaking English.” Latino leaders were galled by that observation.
“That’s a pretty good indication [they are illegal immigrants],” Rohrabacher still maintains. “We have to use our hearts, we have to be very sympathetic, but we also have to be responsible with the public money. And sometimes that means you have to have proof of eligibility [to receive benefits.]
“I understand that other people can believe the exact opposite and they earn my respect,” he said. “But I operate under the assumption that I am correct in my belief.”
Rohrabacher maintains that despite such controversial stands, he does not personally attack his foes. “But I’m going to go for whatever it takes to win an issue,” he adds.
Even if it means going after leaders of his own party.
When Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Bush, opposed Proposition 187, for example, Rohrabacher said Kemp’s “act of stupidity has knocked him right out of the presidential race. If he disagreed with it, he should have kept his mouth shut.” The measure won voter approval and spurred congressional debate to tighten immigration laws.
As he recently embarked on a local campaign to recall Assembly Speaker Doris Allen because the Cypress Republican cut a deal with Democrat Willie Brown to win the post, Rohrabacher said he was shocked that “she could be that dumb and that treacherous.”
Rohrabacher is candid even when it comes to his beloved Speaker of the House, as when he criticized Gingrich’s support of President Clinton’s plan to rescue the Mexican peso. “Newt is just about the only one I heard who bought the baloney. . . . Even the best of us make mistakes in judgment now and then.”
It is that courage to stand alone that has won the respect of freshman mavericks in the House, including Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.). Freshmen look to Rohrabacher, particularly when they don’t know which way to turn on an issue, Stockman says.
“He’s always been a mentor,” says Stockman, who relied on Rohrabacher’s counsel in getting a House vote on a resolution opposing the Mexican peso loan guarantees. “He was very instrumental in telling me how hard to push and when to pull back.”
Recently, Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Ida.) sought Rohrabacher’s advice on how to force a House floor vote to cancel pay raises for workers at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--the agency that has become the target of gun enthusiasts. Nine hours later, the House defeated the amendment. But it served its purpose as a warning shot at the agency.
For all his outspoken conservatism, Rohrabacher is sometimes seen as a pragmatic libertarian.
He calls communists “gangsters and hoodlums,” but believes it is wrong to call abortion rights advocates “baby killers. . . . I think it’s bad rhetoric and I don’t think it helps the debate.”
Rohrabacher also supported Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy toward gays in the military, believing the government “should not promote homosexuality or persecute homosexuals.”
Nor is he a member of the ultra-conservative faction of House Republicans focused on issues such as abortion and prayer in schools, because he doesn’t feel comfortable with groups that focus on social mores instead of economic opportunities and political freedom.
Still, Rohrabacher dreams of making a difference. He hopes to see the development of the space vehicle so that entrepreneurs can engage in commerce in the heavens. He also wants to be a freedom fighter--perhaps “save somebody’s life, if they are in prison overseas,” or “do something or say something that deters [a dictatorship] and maintains the peace.”
There’s still a little time. Rohrabacher said he plans to run for reelection once more, perhaps twice, and maybe seek higher office. But frankly, he says, he’d rather dust off one of his screenplays and make another try at becoming a writer.
Looking toward his office window, he can see a green straw hat plopped on top of a coat stand--a reminder that if he ever feels discouraged, all he has to do is grab a bottle of tequila and head for the California surf.
“When I stop having fun, that’s when I’ll get out of here,” he says.
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Rohrabacher: Ready on the Right
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) has emerged from nearly 30 years of supporting conservative and Libertarian causes to become something of a leader and moral compass for GOP freshmen in the House of Representatives. A profile of the man and the politician:
Hometown: Coronado, Calif.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, Long Beach State College, 1969; master’s degree in American studies, USC, 1971
Marital status: Single
First job: Ice cream scooper at Marineland
Life before Congress: Senior speech writer and special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, 1981-1988; assistant press secretary for Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns; radio and print journalist, 1970-1980
Other background: A former registered Libertarian, he was California chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom in 1967
Congressional district: 45th
Congressional duties: Member of Science Committee, chairman of energy and environment subcommittee (also sits on space and aeronautics subcommittee); International Relations Committee, Asia and the Pacific, and international economic policy and trade subcommittees
After dwindling support in two consecutive general elections, Rohrabacher received his highest percentage of the vote in 1994. General election support:
Contributions from political action committees during the 1993-94 election cycle totaled $60,270. Top PAC contributors by industry category were:
Finance, insurance and real estate: $13,800
Ideological/single-issue groups: $8,270**
Energy/natural resources: $7,350
* Includes $7,100 from United Parcel Service
** Includes $4,950 from National Rifle Assn.
Given Rohrabacher’s conservative proclivities, his ratings from various issue groups are not surprising. Rating range 100% (for strong support) to 0% (rejection):
Rating organization (year): National Right to Life Committee (1993)
Rating organization (year): Business-Industry Political Action Committee (1994)
Rating organization (year): National Rifle Assn. (1993-94)
Issue: gun issues
Rating organization (year): Citizens Against Government Waste (1993)
Rating organization (year): National Taxpayers Union (1993)
Rating organization (year): American Conservative Union (1994)
Rating organization (year): Christian Coalition (1993)
Issue: family issues
Rating organization (year): American Security Council (1993-94)
Issue: defense/foreign policy
Rating organization (year): Human Rights Campaign Fund (1993)
Issue: civil rights/liberties
Rating organization (year): PeacePAC (1994)
Issue: defense/foreign policy
Rating organization (year): Americans for Democratic Action (1993)
Rating organization (year): National Council of Senior Citizens (1993)
Rating organization (year): League of Conservation Voters (1993)
Rating organization (year): National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League (1994)
Issue: abortion rights
Rating organization (year): AFL-CIO (1993)
Rating organization (year): Consumer Federation of America (1993)
Rating organization (year): Children’s Defense Fund (1993)
Here’s how Rohrabacher has voted on key issues before the House during the last three years:
Approve balanced budget constitutional amendment: Yes
Make it easier to use evidence obtained illegally if police made “good faith” search: Yes
Revise Clean Water Act to include relaxing regulations on waste-water discharge into waterways, limiting federal ability to protect wetlands: Yes
Safeguard access to abortion clinics: No
Approve crime bill: No
Ban 19 types of semiautomatic weapons: No
Approve General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT): No
Prohibit federal aid to schools not allowing voluntary prayer: Yes
Reduce aid to Russia, other former U.S.S.R. republics from $904 million to $200 million: Yes
Require five-business-day wait for handgun purchase (Brady bill): No
Approve North American Free Trade Agreement: Yes
Disapprove extension of most-favored-nation status to People’s Republic of China products: Yes
Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, Project Vote Smart/Center for National Independence in Politics
Researched by GEBE MARTINEZ / Los Angeles Times