Assembly Race Pits Opposing Views of Moderation

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Though their downtown Ventura campaign offices share the same block, the two candidates in the competitive 35th Assembly race are striving to show they are ideologically apart--but not too partisan for the middle-of-the-road district.

Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson, who grew up in a GOP-voting family, touts her experience as a divorce lawyer and former deputy district attorney.

Republican Chris Mitchum, son of Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum, is a B-movie actor and a former vice president of the Screen Actors Guild whose latest role is that of concerned citizen stepping onto the political stage.

Where these first-time candidates disagree most is whether patients can sue their HMOs, how to combat juvenile crime, who should pay for abortions and whether parents should know when their daughters have them.

The combination of two relative unknowns with deep pockets running in an open district that is not strongly partisan adds up to a tight race. The 35th District covers Ventura, Santa Paula, Ojai and most of Santa Barbara County.

Even Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, the moderate Republican in Los Olivos who is giving up the seat and campaigning for Mitchum, says the race is too close to call.

"I think that Hannah-Beth Jackson is too liberal and too partisan," he said. "Chris Mitchum is more of an unknown because he hasn't been involved in the political scene, but I think he's probably perceived as being more conservative than the district would like.

"It swings all over the place--very independent," Firestone said of the district he has represented since 1994.

John Davies, a Santa Barbara communications consultant who usually works for Republicans, agreed that there's not much room for extremes in the 35th District.

"It's a seat for a moderate Democrat. It's a seat for a very moderate Republican," Davies said. "So if you look at it from that point of view, it's Hannah-Beth Jackson's to lose."

Jackson's party has targeted the 35th as one of 19 competitive races that it must win Nov. 3 in order to hold or strengthen its majority in the Assembly.

For the Republicans' part, they want to defend the seat and, like the Democrats, say they are willing to spend several hundred thousand dollars to do it.

All told, each campaign expects to spend between $500,000 and $1 million on the race.

Candidates Stake Out Positions

On health care, Jackson advocates a patients' bill of rights, including the right to sue HMOs.

"If there's no teeth in something," she said, "then there's no point in having it."

Mitchum favors the use of independent review panels to settle claims rather than the lawsuits that he says are exorbitant and primarily benefit trial attorneys.

Both candidates support abortion rights, but Mitchum does not back government funding for abortions. Jackson says paying for the procedure for poor women makes fiscal sense, saving the government money in other areas down the road. She opposes parental consent, which Mitchum supports, and parental notification.

Mitchum said, "There's something very wrong with our laws when they'll sit around and hold my daughter there all day long waiting to set her [broken] arm, but they will go ahead and perform an intrusive medical procedure on her without my knowledge and consent."

Both Jackson and Mitchum worry about the influence of gangs in the area and increasing juvenile crime.

Jackson supports rehabilitation programs; Mitchum focuses on freeing up more jail beds for underage criminals and keeping their offense records intact through their adult years.

Seeking Swing Vote

On paper, the 35th is Democratic. Of the district's 238,000 voters, 44% are Democratic and 36% are Republican. The swing vote comes in the 14% who decline to align themselves with a political party and the 6% who belong to minor parties.

Some of those votes may go to Eric Dahl, the Natural Law candidate from Goleta.

A sign that both sides realize the district's fondness for moderation, Mitchum calls himself "an independent voice for the central coast" in one brochure and never directly mentions that he is a Republican. Jackson also keeps her party affiliation quiet in most of her literature.

Further tailoring themselves to the district's population, both Jackson and Mitchum sprinkle their stances with a little bit of Republican, a pinch of Democrat.

Jackson boasts of her experience on women's issues and advocates "rational" gun control. But she reveres the Republican heroes of her 1960s youth in Boston, whose party she abandoned when it began shifting further to the right.

Mitchum is a National Rifle Assn. member and has the endorsement of longtime friend and NRA President Charlton Heston, but says he will consider bills that improve gun safety. He says he's an environmentalist, citing his involvement in an effort to protect the ocean.

Mitchum laments the percentage of local tax dollars that get sent to Sacramento, never to return. He says he will work to increase the amount of taxes that stick around to provide more funding for self-governance.

On education, there is little difference between the candidates. Both favor class-size reduction in all grades. Mitchum favors school choice, though Jackson likes to point out that he has publicly favored vouchers as well.

On environmental issues, Mitchum and Jackson both want to stop the further expansion of offshore oil drilling and express concern for the cleanliness of the central coast's waters and beaches. Mitchum is raising private money to begin a cleanup effort, saying that getting government to take the lead will take too long. Jackson is still forming a plan that would include extensive testing and consolidate the clean-water agencies.

Campaign Strategies

Given the competitive nature of the district, both candidates are relying on money from their parties to boost their name recognition among an electorate that favored Democrats for 20 years before Firestone's election.

One GOP consultant, however, questioned the party's commitment.

"The Republicans have no energy behind Mitchum in this race," he said, adding the GOP has tougher fights around the state.

Perhaps that's because they don't foresee the Reaganesque appeal of an actor-turned-politician materializing in Chris Mitchum.

"Ronald Reagan won and that's the example that everyone points to, but there are probably hundreds of examples of actors who lost," said Darry Sragow, campaign manager for the Assembly Democratic Caucus.

Like Reagan, Mitchum served in the leadership of the Screen Actors Guild, one of the country's largest unions, for six years in the early 1980s, including a two-year stint as a vice president. His conservative politics and friendship with John Wayne got him blackballed by Hollywood's liberal establishment, he says.

Mitchum does, however, claim several Hollywood supporters, including actress Bo Derek. More of his backers are CEOs and business owners, plus the sheriffs of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Jackson's endorsement list features less star power--mainly city council members and supervisors from both counties. She also claims the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs and the California Teachers Assn. among her supporters.

Mitchum, with a jutting chin and combed-back hair reminiscent of his late famous father, stands to gain from name recognition and his dad's association with conservatives. Jackson is more widely known in Santa Barbara--where both candidates live--and especially in Ventura, said UC Santa Barbara politics professor Eric Smith.

"Her name has actually probably been in the papers many more times than his," Smith said. "He just hasn't been out and around."

"He's got a great advantage because he looks like his dad, but the voters want more than that," consultant Davies said.

While Jackson would like voters to see her profession as a sign of experience with lawmaking, Republicans are hoping that anti-lawyer sentiment will cost the Democrat some votes.

Mitchum, who is divorced, sarcastically referred to Jackson's law practice specialty as his "favorite kind" and says he has received reports "by the dozen" of what he calls her "questionable courtroom tactics."

In addition to his screen guild term and his service on several charitable boards, Mitchum has a professional record of his own, some of it available--if you look hard enough--at your local video store: "Lethal Seduction," "Biohazard: The Alien Force" and more than 50 other films.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

35th Assembly District

Hannah-Beth Jackson

Party affiliation: Democrat

Age: 48

Residence: Santa Barbara

Occupation: Family law attorney

Education: Bachelor's degrees in government and sociology, Scripps College; law degree, Boston University

Background: A former Santa Barbara County prosecutor, Jackson has been an advocate of victims' rights for two decades. She was appointed by different California governors to the State Commission on the Status of Women and the Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Support Development and Enforcement.

Issues: Jackson believes California has done a poor job of investing in its future by not spending enough on education. She advocates building more schools and providing money to reduce class sizes in more grades. She says state leaders should help preserve open spaces and aggressively track polluters.

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Chris Mitchum:

Party affiliation: Republican

Age: 54

Residence: Santa Barbara

Occupation: Actor/writer/producer

Education: Bachelor's degree in literature from the University of Arizona

Background: The son of movie legend Robert Mitchum, Mitchum has acted in more than 60 films and more recently has begun writing and producing movies. He sat on the board of the Screen Actors Guild for five years in the 1980s, an experience he believes prepared him for politics.

Issues: Mitchum said he is an old-time Republican concerned with keeping taxes low and promoting a free-market economy. He believes state leaders should share more tax money with local cities and schools. He advocates a tougher approach to repeat criminals and wants to protect gun owners' rights.

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