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Sybert Springs Back : After ’94 Loss, GOP Candidate Gains Support to Succeed Beilenson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Super-serious Rich Sybert is in a light mood these days. Bouncing a Jitter ball in his hands, he acts like a kid in a toy store. Well, make that a toy design shop in Oxnard--where he is the manager.

Sure, Sybert felt a little down around this time last year. After all, he had just dropped $1 million, half of it his own money, on a failed campaign to bounce Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) from his congressional seat.

But now that Beilenson has decided to retire, last year’s costly loss looks more like a wise investment for next year’s political campaign.

Former Republican rivals are clearing out of Sybert’s way, either endorsing him or saying he deserves the right to run unopposed in the March GOP primary.

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And Sybert relishes the notion of running against state Board of Equalization member Brad Sherman, the only Democrat who has emerged so far to seriously consider the race.

“He’s a Republican’s dream opponent,” Sybert said. “A tax collector.”

Yet the 24th Congressional District, which includes most of Thousand Oaks and extends into the San Fernando Valley, is tough political territory.

The Democrats have a 5% edge in voter registration; however, they do not vote with the frequency of Republicans. That can make any matchup between the major parties a tossup--the voters swinging with the political winds.

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Sybert knows the challenge ahead and is not taking his good political fortune for granted.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls of congratulations from people who are giddy,” Sybert said. “I try to sober them up. This is a difficult district. No one is going to give this to me. I have to earn it.”

Surprised by Beilenson’s retirement announcement earlier this month, Democrats have not lined up behind any one candidate.

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Some Democratic leaders worry about Sherman’s image as a tax collector. As a member of the state Board of Equalization, he rules on personal and corporate tax appeals and oversees the collection and distribution of sales, gas and cigarette taxes.

Sherman does not share the concern. He points out that he led the successful fight in 1991 against the state’s sales tax on snacks. As a tight-fisted certified public accountant, he said, he cannot be painted by the Republicans as a big-spending Democrat.

Sherman has all but announced his candidacy, and is already arranging his cash and polishing his lines for the approaching campaign.

“What is at stake here,” he said, “is whether Newt Gingrich continues to run the House of Representatives. Sybert will have to explain how he can be independent and still vote for Gingrich as Speaker of the House.”

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Sherman promises to spend a personal fortune on the race. He said he lent about $500,000 to his first bid for the Board of Equalization in 1990. Since then, his campaign committee has managed to repay him from the proceeds of political fund-raising events.

“Most of that money is in the bank now--tanned, rested and ready,” Sherman said. “Mr. Sybert’s money is gone with the wind.”

Sybert confirms that he is not in the same financial position he was last year when he lent his campaign half a million dollars.

While he insists that “I’m not poverty stricken and I plan to support my race,” he also said he needs to work to support his wife, Greta, and 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and to pay the rent on their home in Calabasas.

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And so he has been working for a toy company--bringing in a six-figure salary--since 1993, when he left his job in Sacramento as Gov. Pete Wilson’s director of planning and research to position himself for his first bid for Congress.

Sybert’s title is president and chief executive officer of Lanard Toys Inc., the design shop for a worldwide toy company based in Hong Kong. He doubles as the company’s general counsel, continuing to give legal and business advice that began in 1987 when he was a partner in a Los Angeles law firm retained by the company.

It is one of Sybert’s business relationships that Beilenson exploited in a political flyer mailed days before last fall’s election. The mailer attacked Sybert for collecting private legal fees while holding a $98,000-a-year position in the governor’s office.

Sybert said all of his moonlighting jobs were cleared in writing by the Fair Political Practices Commission. He is now suing Beilenson for libel.

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When he is not campaigning, Sybert spends his workdays overseeing a youthful band of toy designers, engineers and model-makers in an off-white stucco building behind the Price Club in Oxnard.

“I kind of feel like an old man around here,” said the 43-year-old Sybert, slender and almost boyish despite a few strands of gray in his full head of hair. He said he is the eldest of the 14 employees at the shop.

Lanard Toys does not possess the household recognition of some giant competitors. It has never hit the market with the hottest toy of the year. “There’s no Cabbage Patch Dolls and no Ken and Barbie,” Sybert said.

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But the company has grown steadily with sales through Walmart, K mart and other stores around the globe, Sybert said. “Our Party Ponies, our vehicles and our flying toys and our water guns are selling very well.”

As general counsel, he helps negotiate licenses, patents and business deals for the company, owned by a family in Sugar Creek, Mo. Sybert declines to name the owners.

As the on-site manager in Oxnard, he oversees the designers of battery-powered boats for the bathtub, pull-string model cars for the game room and just about every other kind of toy except stuffed animals and hand-held computer games.

“I’m not technically qualified as a graphic or product designer,” Sybert said. “I’m very qualified to say that I think this will work in the market or kids will never buy this. Everybody has an opinion. We have regular design meetings where everybody throws things around.”

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The office showroom bulges with an arsenal of Monster Blaster squirt guns, GyroNauts, the World Force Response Team and Atomic Ranger Warriors, which are “fully poseable action heroes with two atomic weapons.”

Sybert lifts a Monster Blaster from the wall of toy weaponry to show how it works. He pulls the trigger. The barrel splays open to reveal a green, bloodshot eye that shoots water.

“I like the industry very much,” Sybert said. “It’s a fun business and fiercely competitive. You’d have to be a real sourpuss if you didn’t enjoy working with toys.”

Sybert, a moderate Republican, insists that his picture be taken in front of less menacing toys: miniature tea sets, Mr. Blizzard Sno-Cone Makers and Party Ponies, which are small horses with tails that can be brushed.

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“Image is important,” he explains.

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Sybert came close to ousting Beilenson last year, losing by only 3,536 votes. He said he took a week off to feel sorry for himself and then began to organize his 1996 campaign.

He does not expect to face a Republican challenger in the March 26 primary and has lined up the endorsements of some former rivals.

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“Rich won the primary and he’s earned the right to run unopposed,” said Mark Boos Benhard, a Republican defeated by Sybert in 1994. “It would be my hope that no one would run against him.”

Bob Hammer of Newbury Park, a banking consultant, said he felt maligned during his run against Sybert and will withhold any endorsement until he sees if anyone else enters the race. But he is not interested in a rematch.

“I would suspect it’s Sybert’s race to lose,” he said.

In last year’s campaign, Sybert irritated some of his fellow Republicans with what they called an arrogant and harshly combative style.

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Sybert said he has learned a few things since then. “Do I have some hard edges? Sure,” he said. “Am I working on them? Yes . . . I’m sure it would be a good thing to learn some humility.”

The deadline for congressional candidates does not come until Dec. 29. Sybert and Sherman are counting the days to see who else might emerge.

Sherman said he would not officially jump into the race until he knows he will not face any major competition in the Democratic primary. To beat Sybert, he said, he cannot afford to blow all of his money in a vigorously contested primary election.

Sherman, 41, a lawyer and certified public accountant, has gained headlines for his fight against a state snack tax and for his self-deprecating humor. He poked fun at his baldness by handing out combs during his campaign, with the refrain, “You can use one more than I can.”

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He plans to do it again. He also vows to mount a tough fight, should he run.

“If I do become a candidate, I ought to give Sybert my lawyer’s name and address, because I know he will sue me,” Sherman said. “He has a policy of suing anybody who tells the truth about him.”

Paul Clarke, a Northridge corporate political consultant, predicts a close race between Sybert and a strong Democratic candidate in the 24th Congressional District.

No matter who wins, he said, the incumbent will face a tough reelection fight every two years.

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“It was created as a difficult district,” Clarke said. “It’s a district where the incumbent will never be able to go to sleep.”


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