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Davis Ads Have Riordan on Defensive Over Abortion Issue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months, Richard Riordan has made support for abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign for governor. The implicit argument: No Republican opposed to abortion rights can beat Democratic incumbent Gray Davis in November.

But Davis has reached back into Riordan’s past to cast him in precisely the terms Riordan hoped to avoid: as an opponent of abortion rights in a state that has strongly supported them.

Riordan’s record on both sides of the abortion debate has made the Davis attack possible--and has forced Riordan in recent days to field questions about his commitment to abortion rights.

Riordan gave more than $10,000 to anti-abortion groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, in a television interview in 1991, Riordan said he agreed “very strongly” with the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion rights.

“Being fairly liberal-minded, I surprise myself at my emotions on the abortion issue, because I feel very--I think it’s murder,” he said in the interview.

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On Monday, Davis began airing a television ad that shows Riordan making those remarks. It is the second Davis spot that questions Riordan’s credentials as a “pro-choice” candidate.

Riordan faces Republicans Bill Jones and Bill Simon Jr. in the March 5 Republican primary. But Riordan and Davis have campaigned as if they were already facing off in the general election--a reflection of Riordan’s strong lead in fund-raising and early polls.

Despite Riordan’s assertion that he favors abortion rights, he has a history on the other side of the issue.

In 1987, his foundation donated $250 to the Right to Life League of Southern California. In 1991, it gave $10,000 to Americans United for Life. Both groups seek to outlaw abortion. Americans United for Life is a legal arm of the nation’s anti-abortion movement.

But two years later, in his first campaign for mayor, Riordan described himself as “pro-choice"--a position he has adhered to ever since.

Questions Increasing

Since the first Davis ad questioning Riordan’s abortion record began airing more than a week ago, Riordan has been peppered with questions about his stand on the subject, often a difficult one for Roman Catholic politicians such as himself.

“I don’t like abortion,” Riordan said last week. “However, I respect and support the right of a woman to make her own choices with respect to her body.”

Asked whether he still believes abortion is murder, as he stated in 1991, he responded, “I’m just not going to get into that,” but added: “I am a champion of a woman’s right to make her own decision, so obviously I don’t think it’s a crime. It goes without saying.”

Riordan said he did not remember the Right to Life League donation. The $10,000 contribution to Americans United for Life was solicited, he said, by “a lawyer who I’d known well for years who was very much involved with this group.”

“The main reason I gave was because I knew him well, and he asked me to,” Riordan said. “I can’t remember his name. He was a partner at Kindel & Anderson at the time.”

Riordan said the donation paid for “advertising encouraging girls to put children up for adoption,” a goal he said he still considers worthwhile.

Asked whether he had donated to groups that favor abortion rights, Riordan replied, “I doubt it.” He also has declined to fill out questionnaires from Planned Parenthood and the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, which ask candidates to detail their positions on abortion.

Riordan declined to say whether his thinking on abortion had changed over time.

He said he disagreed with state court cases that bar requirements for parental notification when minors have abortions, but pledged to uphold the law.

“I strongly believe it’s in the child’s interest, and society’s interest, that the child discuss having an abortion with her parents or some other adult that they respect,” he said.

Riordan said he would support a ban on certain late-term abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life. Some proponents of abortion rights see efforts to ban the controversial procedure as the first step toward more restrictive laws on all abortions.

In his TV spots, Davis cites Riordan’s donations to anti-abortion groups and his support for the Reagan administration’s effort to put Robert Bork--an advocate of overturning Roe vs. Wade--on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Garry South, the chief architect of Davis’ reelection campaign, said Riordan was calling himself “pro-choice” for political gain. South questioned Riordan’s inability to recall the circumstances of his donations.

“Why would an Israeli contribute a dime to Hamas, which is dedicated to destroying the state of Israel?” South asked. “Why would a black American contribute a penny to the white Aryan Nations, which is dedicated to obliterating blacks in the United States of America?”

South said Riordan’s “flip-flop” on abortion was part of a pattern. He cited news interviews in which Riordan deviated from his support for the death penalty and opposition to tax increases. Riordan denied he has changed his views.

“Either he’s lying through his teeth or he’s losing his marbles,” South said.

The Davis ads are intended to raise doubts not just about Riordan’s stand on abortion, but also about his trustworthiness.

The new ad concludes with the same question posed in an earlier ad that depicts the GOP candidate as a foe of abortion rights: “Riordan--is this a record we can trust?” Not coincidentally, the same question caps another Davis spot that trashes Riordan’s record fighting crime as mayor of Los Angeles.

Women’s Vote Crucial

By picking abortion as his first line of attack, Davis is seeking in part to undercut Riordan’s support among women, who are crucial to the GOP candidate. A Los Angeles Times poll released last week found Riordan running nearly even with Davis among women--an ominous sign for the governor of a state where women usually lean heavily toward Democrats.

Another part of the Davis strategy in using abortion against Riordan is its potential to rile both sides. Abortion rights proponents, the Davis camp surmised, could be upset by Riordan’s past support for antiabortion groups; opponents could be angered by his current defense of abortion rights.

Indeed, some on both sides of the debate have reacted accordingly.

“I’m not sure Richard Riordan knows where he stands on the issue,” said Jan Carroll, legal analyst for the California ProLife Council. The council, which opposes abortion, has endorsed Simon.

Among abortion rights groups, Davis is the preferred candidate; both Planned Parenthood and the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League have endorsed Davis.

“If indeed you’re pro-choice, then you’re not going to be supporting organizations that are working against that principle,” said Belle Taylor-McGhee, the league’s executive director.

Tony Quinn, a Republican strategist, said Riordan made a mistake by focusing during the primary on the divisive abortion issue.

“Riordan has managed to get into a debate with himself over his abortion views,” Quinn said.

He added, “Abortion is a subject that is damaging to Republican candidates--anywhere, any time.”

But Kevin Spillane, Riordan’s political director, said Davis’ attack would have no impact on the campaign.

“Throughout the campaign, we’ve always said Richard Riordan is going to be Richard Riordan,” he said. “That’s why he talks about the fact that he’s pro-choice, because that’s an important part of this campaign.”


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