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The Promise Keeper

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Andrea Seastrand would later joke of being a “hunted woman.” But on this morning, shuttered with other endangered Republican congressional species in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--just a stone’s throw across Lafayette Park from that “say-nothing, do-nothing liberal president"--she isn’t laughing.

“I’m one of those freshmen who are under attack every day,” the San Luis Obispo representative tells a gathering of 30 businessmen and women. “There’s a barrage of press releases, phone banks going on, mailings, press conferences and advertising on radio and television. . . . I’m a targeted race.”

This week, Seastrand is also a targeted viral host. Already weakened by insistently long work days and a 10 1/2-hour commute each weekend to her Santa Barbara-based 22nd District (“I’m on perpetual jet lag”), the 54-year-old congresswoman has the flu. She was throwing up earlier in the week and is miserable and glassy-eyed today.

Pumped full of antihistamines and antinausea medication, Seastrand feels a little like she’s having an out-of-body experience. She pokes and frowns at an otherwise ignored turkey club sandwich, and hopes to make some sense to people whose support she desperately needs this fall.

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“I’ve never voted for a tax increase. I understand that dollars create businesses and businesses create jobs,” Seastrand tells the audience, her wattage flagging ever so. “You don’t have to come and bend my ear.”

With her are two other imperiled Republicans: Maine’s Jim Longley and North Carolina’s Fred Heineman, whose famous gaffe last year was describing his $133,000 salary as “lower-middle class.” Capitol Hill’s Roll Call newspaper lists all three among 15 freshmen most vulnerable to defeat Nov. 4. Seastrand is the only Californian and only woman, not counting Utah’s scandal-plagued Enid Greene Waldholtz, who has since rejected a second run.

Seastrand is certain that forces of the left are arrayed against her, and she’s not far off.

Environmentalists and nonpartisan groups for the aged are slashing at her voting record. The AFL-CIO spent millions on a television ad campaign targeting 27 races nationally, hers included. “She wants to cut Medicaid and Medicare for our parents,” the voice-over on one spot says. “She went along with Newt Gingrich and shut down the government.”

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This year, Seastrand faces the same Democrat--UC Santa Barbara religious studies professor Walter Capps--she beat in 1994 by only 1,563 votes, less than 1%. The district is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and Capps very much wants to make the race a referendum on a Republican Congress whose policy approval rating dropped to 33% last month.

“I think you’re going to see a national campaign run here in our district,” laments Jim Diani, a close friend of Seastrand’s and owner of a Santa Maria construction company. “You’re going to see Andrea branded as a clone to Gingrich and tied to the 104th Congress on all of the negative things . . . the budget crisis and all that.”

In her strongest base of San Luis Obispo County, a recent poll by the local newspaper shows her leading Capps by only a few points with nearly a third of voters undecided.

“I don’t even have to fan this,” Capps says of the sentiment he claims is mounting against Seastrand. “I just go around and I hear people talking about her.”

Back in Washington, the Chamber of Commerce meeting ends to mixed reviews as lawmakers hurry off to the Hill for another vote and the businesspeople complain of hearing only sound bites.

“Very frustrating,” Seastrand says later.

Like so many efforts for her, it was part strain, part gamble, none of it fun, all of it imperfect in its results--something not unlike Andrea (she pronounces it An-DRAY-ah) Seastrand’s view of the world. Hers is a stoic, even harsh assessment of life, shaped from childhood by Lithuanian nuns, anti-communism, a husband’s painful death, bone-weary political struggles and, most recently, the uneven efforts of a conservative GOP congressional majority of which she is a most loyal soldier.

“I’ve learned that life is not easy. Life is hard. It’s not fair. But God is good and that’s the thing that keeps me going,” Seastrand says days later over a fruit cup in the basement of the Republicans’ Capitol Hill Club.

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“I do believe in the next life,” she adds, and then laughs: “There’s got to be something better.”

It’s little wonder that when Seastrand calls her 84-year-old mother, Vi Ciszek, back in Salinas every day--sometimes twice--the message for the daughter is always the same: Eat, sleep and be kind to yourself.

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Seastrand is 5-feet-1, partial to heavy finger and ear jewelry, likes loud blazers and constantly worries about her weight. (She has a weakness for hot fudge sundaes.)

If her chief of staff, Kay Reiboldt, wasn’t vigilant, the congresswoman might venture out in a flag-decorated jacket or one with vegetables all over it. She buys her clothes tailored from the Style Center in Paso Robles.

Seastrand has a Bob Dole-like way of referring to herself in the third person, as with a recent “News Hours With Jim Lehrer” appearance, when she said that “constituents . . . realize that Andrea Seastrand is keeping her promise.”

Widowed for six years, Seastrand wears no wedding band, yet makes no time for a social life. Still, says Reiboldt, whom Seastrand characterizes as her closest confidante, if the right man came along, things might be different.

In Catholic high school they called her Andi. She was an organizer, loved to dance and covered parochial schools for a Catholic newspaper. Before that, she dreamed of being a nun.

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A Roll Call analysis of congressional conservatives ranks her far right--somewhere in the Rush Limbaugh zone--but not as extreme as even other Californians. She believes strongly that the federal government is bloated, overbearing and strangling the future with debt. She worries as well about moral decay in America, opposing gun control, gay rights and abortion in all cases except where the mother’s life is in danger.

Neither is she shy about her religious faith. But to her everlasting chagrin, someone tape-recorded Seastrand’s 1994 comments to an Arroyo Grande church congregation. The speech has haunted her since.

In the remarks, Seastrand first quotes God’s admonishment to Solomon in the Old Testament: that those people who “turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sin, and heal their land.”

Then Seastrand tells the congregation: “I think California has been given so many signs: floods, drought, fires, earthquakes, lifting mountains 2 feet high in Northridge. The signs are all here. . . . We probably have the most adulterers living here in California, child pornographers and molesters . . . and divorce, family breakups, all of that evil. California and America need your prayers.”

She says now that she didn’t mean by those remarks “that God’s punishing us.” Rather, she says, he’s “just not blessing [us].”

Seastrand and her supporters frequently characterize her as a former elementary schoolteacher, connoting the kind of non-political roots of which so many of the Republican freshmen boast.

But Seastrand taught only four years when she was just out of college, quitting after her husband began working as a stockbroker. She stayed home to raise their two adopted children.

More accurately, her passion was and remains politics. “Our children always laughed about how other parents played bridge or went bowling, but theirs had a petition drive,” she says. “My husband would always say that Andrea was the true politician in the family.”

The political organizing remains second nature.

Last fall, Gingrich blitzed through Santa Maria, barely leaving the tarmac to raise $70,000 for Seastrand. For her reelection campaign she won the services of top-drawer GOP consultant Eddie Mahe, who handles only a few congressional races per cycle and who spirited Sonny Bono to victory in 1994. Mahe’s partner, Ladonna Y. Lee, says they took Seastrand’s race because she was targeted and to help safeguard a small, but growing (17) number of GOP women in Congress.

In a freshman class of brash, outspoken newsmakers, Seastrand remains largely in the background. “She hasn’t had a real high profile,” says Dave Mason, an expert on Congress with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But that profile got a boost recently when she took a strong role co-sponsoring immigration reform. It was her topic of choice when leadership gave her the privilege of making the GOP response to President Clinton’s Saturday radio address on March 16.

“For a little girl from the southwest side of Chicago,” she said of that opportunity, “it’s a bit overwhelming.”

In many ways, Seastrand was a perfect player for the immigration issue since she is the granddaughter of Polish immigrants.

“Immigrants have been the backbone of growth, creativity and opportunity in American,” Seastrand said in her Saturday address.

But the package of reforms that passed the House overwhelmingly on the first day of spring were stripped of several tough provisions that Seastrand and her co-authors had hoped to include.

One amendment she introduced would have set up a pilot program requiring employers to verify citizenship of a prospective worker with a hotline number. Employers, she says, “are faced with a person who maybe doesn’t look American, sound American, and yet . . . [has] documentations that are very good in their fakeness.” A phone call is quick and easy verification, she says.

The amendment failed on the House floor.

Other provisions that would have reduced the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country were stripped away shortly before the bill passed. Seastrand, who voted to keep the cutback in legal immigrants in the bill, says she sees no inconsistency between supporting such reductions and her heritage. Even when her grandparents arrived early in the century, there were, as there are now, limitations imposed by Congress, she says.

Democrats and a good many of Seastrand’s Republican colleagues attacked the provisions limiting legal immigration as too extreme.

“Traditional American values do not . . . condone a new American culture based on ethnic identity or population-control ideology, as opposed to ideas and hard work. We are morally obliged to reject measures so harsh that they seem to regard the only good Samaritan as a dead Samaritan,” wrote GOP Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Mark Souder of Indiana in a recent Washington Times column.

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Andrea Helen Ciszek was born the only child of Joseph and Vi Ciszek. Her mother was a clerical worker; her father, a bus driver for the city of Chicago.

Andrea’s role models were the nuns from whom she learned self-esteem, self-determination and, from those who had fled totalitarianism, a strong love and appreciation of her country.

A sense of adventure lured her out of Chicago, two days after graduating from De Paul University in 1965. She settled with relatives in Salinas, began teaching school, met and married Eric Seastrand and started a family.

They were the perfect Republican couple. Their first meeting was on Lincoln’s birthday and, during their honeymoon, they visited with friends at a political convention in Los Angeles. They joined a young Republicans group and served on central committees, stuffed envelopes, worked phone banks and organized rallies.

“Eric was someone who you looked at and saw stability and strength within. Andrea is such a hyper-aggressive type of gal. She goes a mile a minute all the time,” says Seastrand supporter Diani. “In that respect, they were almost opposites.”

In 1976, Eric began a yeoman-like effort to win public office and realize a lifelong dream. He lost three consecutive elections--the last by a razor-thin margin--before capturing a state Assembly seat in 1982. Within months he was found to have colon cancer, further evidence for his wife of life’s unforgiving harshness.

After nine surgeries and four terms in the Assembly, his last three years in unremitting pain, Eric Seastrand died in 1990, shortly after winning the primary for a fifth term.

It was an extraordinary moment for Andrea and her children. She had only days to decide whether to run for office and begin canvassing GOP central committee members for a special nomination.

Supporters had solicited her candidacy with phone messages even as Eric lay dying. “It was a little bit insanity and madness,” she recalls.

Two days after his burial, with her children then ages 10 and 12 urging her on, Seastrand went for it. “I remember walking out of my front porch, talking to the TV cameras and thinking to myself, it would have been so much easier to walk back into the house, grab my dogs, hug them, water my geraniums and forget the whole thing.”

But Seastrand soon found she wanted it very much.

In 1994, after two terms in the Assembly, she ran for the congressional seat Michael Huffington was giving up for his failed shot at the U.S. Senate.

She wholeheartedly embraced and campaigned for Gingrich’s “contract with America,” later voting for its provisions right down the line. She describes the speaker as brilliant, principled and compassionate. Although she hasn’t read it yet, Gingrich’s book, “To Renew America” (HarperCollins, 1995), sits conspicuously beside the Holy Bible on a short shelf of books behind her desk on Capitol Hill.

Some observers suggest that Seastrand and other freshmen are distancing themselves from Gingrich as his popularity wanes. Seastrand insists, for example, that her philosophy is her own and not Gingrich’s, and she no longer mentions the “contract” in her stump speech. Still, she rejects any notion of backing away from the speaker, and Lee, her political consultant, said they would be happy to have Gingrich campaign for her in the district.

Republican colleagues describe Seastrand as aggressive, opinionated and willing to elbow her way into an issue such as immigration. She also won a place on the GOP “theme team,” delivering one-minute policy speeches from the House floor.

One of her best hits was a play off Dr. Seuss: “They will not try a balanced budget, Sam I am. They will not try it with a mouse. They will not try it in the House.”

The work cut out for her in the upcoming election, however, will be demonstrating to a largely moderate voter base how her voting record in a reform-minded House of Representatives has not bordered on the extreme.

She’d be the first to say it won’t be any fun.

“It just seems like nothing I have ever done was handed to me,” Seastrand says.

“Whether it’s nomination for the Assembly, or Congress or this time around in my reelection, it’s just that way. No complaints. I just would like one time something to be simple. But that’s just not the way it is.”


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