Social Issues Bring Out Differences

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These are the political issues that stoke her liberal boiler, and she brings them up whenever and wherever she can. Her moderate-to-conservative opponent rarely talks about such things unless asked.

When it comes to abortion rights, gay rights, protection of immigrants, gun control or equal treatment for women, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is a force to be reckoned with. Her activism on social issues has endeared her to supporters and made her public enemy No. 1 to detractors.

Her Republican challenger, state Treasurer Matt Fong, disagrees with most of Boxer's views, although their views on social issues are not as polarized as their positions on taxation, foreign policy and military preparedness.

The biggest distinction between the two on social issues may be one of priorities and energy. While Fong would surely be a more conservative vote on social issues, there is no indication he would be an activist like Boxer.

Do not expect a Sen. Fong to propose legislation or take a leadership role on the social side of the agenda.

Of abortion, for example, he said: "That's not my issue, that's not my focus. That's not what I talk about and I think about. That doesn't mean I don't have those values and those principled positions, but they're not what drives me."

Boxer Champions Social Issues

Name a social issue in the last two decades, and chances are Boxer has been in the middle of the fray. Before she entered politics, she considered a career as a radio talk show host. She does not shrink from a fight.

In the face of adamant opposition from powerful Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), she formed a "war room" to rally support for a gay activist from San Francisco nominated by President Clinton to a top housing job. "I was alone on that one," she recently reminded a West Hollywood audience.

She is one of the Senate's most outspoken opponents of Republican-sponsored bills to limit access to abortion--110 of them since 1993. She wrote the Family Planning and Reproductive Act to promote family planning and protect abortion rights.

"I won't say she's the worst, but she's tied for the worst," said a spokeswoman for the National Right-to-Life organization when asked to rate Boxer among U.S. senators.

On the other hand, EMILY's List, a Washington-based group dedicated to raising campaign funds for female politicians who support abortion rights, just sent an urgent plea to its members: Barbara Boxer is facing a tight reelection fight and needs your donations.

Boxer cajoled her Senate colleagues into promising public hearings on the sexual harassment charges against then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), a move that seemed to hasten his resignation. She prodded the Navy into investigating the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention where drunken aviators allegedly mauled and groped dozens of women.

She opposed California Propositions 187 (anti-illegal immigration), 209 (anti-affirmative action) and 227 (anti-bilingual education). She sponsored a bill to demand that gun manufacturers install child-proof locks and wants to ban small guns called Saturday night specials. The National Rifle Assn. has endorsed Fong--a fact Boxer mentions frequently but Fong rarely does.

Boxer's passion and her often uncompromising rhetoric have earned her a passel of political enemies, including a newly formed group called Bye-Bye Barbara, which has the enthusiastic backing of conservative organizer and talk show host Oliver North. The Temecula-based group is distributing Anybody-but-Barbara bumper stickers.

The fact that North is opposing her seems to energize Boxer.

"I have a message for Oliver North," Boxer told the West Hollywood gathering. "People in California do not agree with your views. Oliver North is wrong for California. Matt Fong is wrong for California."

Fong stands to be the beneficiary of social conservatives' anti-Boxer enthusiasm, but he is hardly the conservative poster child on social issues.

He believes abortion should be legal during the first trimester but opposes public funding and late-term abortions. He opposes domestic partners benefits for gay couples but supports laws banning discrimination in housing and jobs and says he will not join other Republicans opposing the nomination of a gay businessman from San Francisco to be ambassador to Luxembourg.

He thinks the federal ban on assault weapons was a good idea but does not want it expanded. He sat out Proposition 187; his support for Propositions 209 and 227 was quiet and mild.

"He may not meet every litmus test on every single issue, but Matt Fong is the definition of a mainstream conservative: someone who takes the side of traditional values and limiting the role and reach of government," said Republican consultant Dan Schnur.

On abortion, Fong says he fits neither the antiabortion nor the abortion rights camp. "I get the worst of both worlds: I get accused of moving to the right and yet the right is not really claiming me. And then some say I'm moving to the left and the left isn't claiming me."

Still, Boxer is warning women that a vote for Fong is a vote for banning and criminalizing all abortions. "When he talks about choice [abortion], he starts to dance," she said. "Unfortunately for women, it's two steps forward and five steps backward."

Fong Takes Personal View

There is a paradox in Fong's arm's-length approach to social issues. They are not part of his standard stump speech, which stresses tax cuts, tougher education standards and more military spending.

But when pressed on social issues, the normally buttoned-down Fong responds with intensely personal anecdotes.

On abortion, he says that as an adopted child he wishes more women would choose to give birth in cases of unplanned pregnancy. "I'm glad my birth mother chose life," he said.

He says he is reluctant to support laws banning small handguns because his mother, former California Secretary of State March Fong Eu, was savagely beaten in her home by an intruder. Gun control advocates, he says, seem to forget that innocent people need guns for protection.

Although he stayed neutral on Proposition 187, he notes that his great-grandfather came to this country from China to be a gold miner but was forced to work as a "coolie" on the railroad.

And on gay rights, he says that although he has a cousin who is gay he believes government should support the sanctity of the "traditional family" of husband and wife.

On health care, particularly the controversial topic of health maintenance organizations, Boxer and Fong have taken opposing positions. Boxer thinks patients should be able to sue HMOs; Fong says that could unfairly drive some companies out of business.

"The only two groups in America that cannot be sued are foreign diplomats and HMOs," Boxer said. "What's wrong with this picture?"

Fong demurs: "Nobody ever got well by suing his doctor." If patients are to be given the right to sue HMOs, he says, the liability of HMOs should be limited lest they be sued out of business.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and later as a senator, Boxer championed the cause of women in the military and the idea that decades-old restrictions on women in combat jobs such as fighter pilot should be dropped.

Fong worries that putting women in combat jobs is undermining the readiness and effectiveness of American troops because males tend to be protective of females. "I think [former Rep.] Pat Schroeder and Barbara Boxer have been more focused not on what is best for the military but [on] what is politically correct," he said.

Policy differences aside, there is a rhetoric gap between the two. Boxer is accomplished in the art of the rousing stump speech. As the scandal swirling around the White House has intensified, Boxer has begun blasting Republicans for trying to divert attention from the topics she feels matter most to voters.

"While there are people who would rather talk trash," she roared to a gathering of labor unionists in Cerritos, "I'd rather talk about issues."

Fong, by his own admission, is not a stirring speaker. He jokes that even his family found his performance at his Aug. 26 debate with Boxer a trifle flat. He promises to be more impressive at the rematch, scheduled for Oct. 12.

"I purposely kept back all my charisma for the next debate," Fong deadpanned to a Temecula audience. "Boxer won't know what to do."

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Boxer, Fong on Social Issues

Liberal U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) makes social issues a major part of her reelection campaign. Her more conservative Republican opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong, rarely brings up such issues.

ABORTION:

Boxer: One of Senate's foremost proponents of keeping abortion legal, providing public funding and resisting parental consent requirement for minors. Voted against the proposed ban on third-term abortions because it did not include a provision permitting such abortions to protect the life and health of women.

Fong: Supports keeping first-trimester abortions legal, although he believes the legal philosophy of the Roe vs. Wade decision was flawed. Opposes public funding and late-term abortions, supports parental consent requirement.

GAY RIGHTS:

Boxer: Supports antidiscrimination laws and domestic partners benefits. Has rallied support for gay nominees for federal jobs.

Fong: Favors laws banning discrimination in housing and employment but opposes domestic partners benefits. Says he would not join other Republicans in opposing the nomination of gay businessman James Hormel for an ambassadorship.

GUN CONTROL:

Boxer: Supports widening of federal ban on assault weapons and banning Saturday night specials. Wants childproof locks on handguns.

Fong: Supported original ban on assault weapons but not the widening. Favors tougher sentences for criminals rather than more gun laws.

HEALTH CARE:

Boxer: Wants patients to have greater power to sue health maintenance organizations.

Fong: Says any move to allow patients to sue HMOs should be accompanied by tort reform to restrict HMO liability.

STATE BALLOT MEASURES:

Boxer: Opposed Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration measure; Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure; and Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education measure.

Fong: Was neutral on 187, supported 209 late in the campaign, supported 227.

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