Huffington's Legacy Still Afflicts GOP

Republicans living along the beautiful, bucolic Central Coast still are paying for the sin of Michael Huffington. They continue to be punished for having forsaken one of their own and taken up with a seductive carpetbagger.

It has been six years since they were lured by the Texas oilman into a one-term stand and then callously dumped. And they haven't gotten their lives back together yet.

In dire need of counseling, the Republicans watched forlornly again Tuesday night as their conservative congressional candidate lost to a Democrat in a special election. It wasn't even close. The nearly final tally: Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) 53.1%, Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro (R-Paso Robles) 45.1%. A Libertarian got 1.8%.

To put this in perspective, you've got to remember that Republicans historically have owned this congressional seat. Charles Teague, son of the nation's largest lemon grower, held it for 20 years. When he died, another Republican whose family had vast farming operations was elected. Robert Lagomarsino served with distinction for 18 years until Huffington showed up and poured $3 million of his own fortune into a primary race, dazzling the GOP. The party has been dysfunctional ever since.

Huffington walked out shortly after being elected and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. Local voters replaced him with conservative Andrea Seastrand (R-Shell Beach), who subsequently suggested to a church congregation that God was punishing California for its "wicked ways" by meting out "floods, drought, fires, earthquakes. . . ." She was dispatched after one term by theology professor Walter Capps--the first Democrat to win the seat in 52 years.

That was in 1996, about a year before Capps died of a heart attack. His widow--an articulate, savvy 60-year-old school nurse--decided to run for the vacant seat. She got lucky. Republicans still weren't reading the political bible.


Many pragmatic Republicans saw Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) as their savior, a moderate who could deliver the district from Democrats. U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich begged him to run. So did former President Gerald Ford, as well as some local Republicans, who had seen Huffington lurking around eyeing the contest.

Firestone succumbed to flattery and a sense of duty and dropped out of his no-sweat race for lieutenant governor. Big mistake.

He got beat up by Bordonaro and right-wingers for a litany of alleged sins: supporting abortion rights, a bilingual ed compromise and reasonable gun control. He was vilified--as Capps later would be--by a sleazy phone bank operation that distorted his views to voters.

There also were, I suspect, elements of class envy and rooting for the underdog. Bordonaro was a middle-class, persevering quadriplegic with a compelling personal story, Firestone a wealthy vintner and grandson of the pioneer tire manufacturer.

Firestone was shunned by the majority of GOP primary voters Jan. 13. They not only frittered away their best chance of reclaiming the House seat--as any Capps strategist privately will acknowledge--but also squandered a valuable political asset.

Firestone, 61, is one of those politicians who possesses all the qualities--honesty, pragmatism, energy, sincerity--most voters insist they desire in a public servant. Now he's disillusioned and not running for anything.


"If I had to do it over again, of course I'd stay in the lieutenant governor's race," he told me Tuesday while eating calamari and sipping Firestone beer on the Santa Barbara wharf.

"Someone asked me whether I'd be more aggressive," he continued, grinning. "I'd be a little more. I wouldn't shrink from accusing my opponent of slaughtering goats at midnight and drinking their blood. And I'd want to hear my opponent say he doesn't do it, and with a straight face."

Firestone, whose father, Leonard, was a close friend of three Republican presidents, said he's worried that extremists are taking over the GOP. "I'll say the unthinkable," he added. "This opens up the avenue to a third party. I'm watching the behavior of the Republican Party."

Tuesday's election really doesn't require much analysis. Capps was a super candidate. She had a first-rate campaign staff. She had good local issues--education, health care, the environment, meaningful jobs. And widows win.

But this district is tailor-made for a Republican mainstreamer. Bordonaro was just too right-wing. Among other things, he's adamantly antiabortion in a region where 70% of voters favor abortion rights.

Bordonaro will have another crack at Capps in November. But it's looking like Republicans will have to wait until the next millennium before they finally can exorcise Michael Huffington and rid themselves of his curse.

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