'Electability' Key for Dems in Area Long Held by GOP


With both candidates in sync on the issues, the Democratic primary in the 27th Congressional District boils down to a debate on the three Cs: credentials, charisma and carpetbagging.

Actor Barry Gordon, former president of the Screen Actors Guild, and businessman Doug Kahn, an heir to the Walter Annenberg fortune, are vying for the nomination.

Kahn, 43, has been the Democratic standard-bearer twice before, while Gordon, 47, is a first-time candidate who recently moved to the district from Northridge.

More is at stake than which party will represent Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena. One of only two open seats in California, the 27th is on everyone's list of races that will determine who runs the next Congress.

Democrats see an opportunity to end a Republican monopoly on a seat held for a quarter of a century by retiring Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale). Republicans are equally hungry to hold the district and have a formidable candidate waiting in the wings.

He is Assemblyman James Rogan (R-Glendale), who is expected to easily win the Republican nomination over political newcomer Joe Paul.

Long a bastion of conservatism, the district is slowly changing demographically. New boundaries, population movement and efforts to register Democratic voters have contributed to the shift.

President Clinton won here in 1992, but so did Gov. Pete Wilson two years later. In 1994, Republican Michael Huffington beat Sen. Diane Feinstein.

Democrats now make up 44% of registered voters in the 27th, while Republicans account for 43%.

This narrow registration breakdown generally means a district is de facto Republican territory, because GOPers are more diligent voters than Democrats. Still, knowledgeable consultants say it is possible, albeit difficult, to elect a Democrat here.

While Rogan is popular in the Glendale-Burbank part of the district he now represents, both Democratic candidates say his views are too right wing for what their polls say are moderate voters in both parties.

"He's got extreme views," Kahn said. "This is not an extreme district."

Both Kahn and Gordon are pro-choice Democrats, committed to protecting Social Security and Medicare, promoting quality education, protecting the environment and increasing public safety.

Against this backdrop, Democratic voters have a choice between a familiar face and a new one.

Unquestionably, Democrats in the district know and respect Kahn. He's lived in the area for eight years, is involved in community activities and brings an unlimited war chest to the race.

Kahn, whose great uncle is Walter Annenberg, is a multimillionaire who initially loaned his campaign $700,000, more than any other Congressional candidate in the country.

In an interview, Kahn pledged to run a positive campaign focusing on his qualifications. He says he's counting on his hometown advantage to carry him to victory.

"The voters are not going to reward someone who moves into the district to run," Kahn said.

Kahn's familiarity with the area is important to Glendale supporter Cathleen Watkins, a corporate public relations professional and member of the Verdugo Hills Democratic Club. "Doug has really laid the groundwork to find out what's going on with the voters," she said. "That matters to me."

Some voters have already received two campaign mailers from Kahn, in which he talks of his commitment to public service and putting the needs of his constituents first.

Kahn, who sold his typesetting business last year to devote himself full-time to campaigning, is a mentor in the Pasadena school system and is on the board of Planned Parenthood.

Married and the father of two young daughters, Kahn recently moved from Altadena to Pasadena.

He is endorsed by the entire Pasadena School Board, the Los Angeles and Pasadena firefighters, the local building trade union and the Teamsters Joint Council 42.

Gordon, on the other hand, is not yet widely known. But many of those who have met him apparently like what they see. Several key local Democratic clubs and the Democratic Party itself switched allegiance to Gordon on grounds that he stands a better chance of winning in November.

"It's a tough call," said John Vollbrecht, president of the Democratic Club of the Pasadena Foothills. "Doug has done yeoman service for the district."

But Gordon is more dynamic and has better articulated a vision for the district, Vollbrecht said.

Electability was also a factor in Rep. Howard Berman's (D-Panorama City) endorsement of Gordon.

"I concluded Barry has the best chance of beating Rogan," Berman said.

Gordon, who is married and has a son in college, denies moving from Northridge to Pasadena to run for office. He said the move had been contemplated since the Northridge earthquake, but that houses in that community are tough to sell, so he is currently renting in Pasadena.

Because of his Screen Actors Guild background, Gordon has attracted major union support, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor political action committee, the California Teachers Union and the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California.

Gordon also won endorsements from the National Organization for Women, Women Now and the League of Conservation Voters.

But while rich in endorsements, Gordon ran up against a money crunch toward the end of last year after spending most of what he had raised.

At the close of the filing period in December, he had just $25,950 in the bank, compared to $385,946 in the Kahn account.

Though Gordon has phone banks working the district, voters just received their first piece of mail from him Friday and Saturday.

The mailer trumpeted Gordon as a proven leader who can win in November and end Newt Gingrich's "reign of terror." But it also noted pointedly that Kahn is a two-time loser against Moorhead.

In an interview, Gordon drew sharp contrasts between his own life experience and Kahn's. Gordon says Kahn is neither college educated nor professionally accomplished, just a rich guy spending his inheritance to run for office.

"He hasn't done anything with his life," Gordon said.

A child actor nominated for a Tony Award for "A Thousand Clowns," Gordon is currently best known as the voice of Donatello from the cartoon show, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Gordon returned to college at 36 and after graduation went to law school while president of the 60,000-member Screen Actors Guild, a post he held for seven years.

Small-businessman Kahn, who attended several colleges but does not have a degree, said he is devoted to public service. His campaign manager, Ted Toppin, notes that a college diploma is not a requirement for Congress. And as for accomplishments, Toppin asks, is being the voice of violent cartoon characters something to brag about?.

Although the election is close at hand, Gordon insists that he has come up with the money for a strong mail program and can "easily" overcome Kahn's higher name recognition and win voters over by March 26.

"Name recognition does not necessarily mean positive name recognition," Gordon said.

But Gordon's supporters concede that he faces an uphill battle because Kahn has paid his dues.

"It's going to be tough," said Dorothy Morris, a Democratic activist. "The money is always the thing that kills you."

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