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Ex-OC Congressman Bob Dornan once called Republican colleague Dana Rohrabacher a "wanna-be celebrity." But in the eight years since Loretta Sanchez retired Dornan, Rohrabacher--the Huntington Beach congressman and Reagan White House speechwriter--has risen from obscurity. Nowadays, only a handful of representatives attract more attention. Rohrabacher is a frequent guest on nationally televised talk shows; hours after Reagan died, Rohrabacher won international attention as an expert on the ex-president; he's worked his way onto CBS's 60 Minutes by ranting about homosexuals; and he's regularly photographed with his superstar pal Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But an odd thing happened at the Oct. 27 candidate debate for the 46th Congressional District. At the end of the event at Orange Coast College (OCC), a group of young men—smiling and nervous—rushed past Rohrabacher without saying a word. They wanted to shake hands with Green Party candidate Tom Lash. One student said to Lash, "You were really inspiring!" Another said sincerely, "Thank you." As the eight-term congressman slowly left the auditorium with an aide, others—not just students—huddled around Lash.
Of all the speakers—Rohrabacher, Democrat Jim Brandt and Libertarian Keith D. Gann--Lash most electrified the overflow crowd of students and local residents. During the two-hour event, his folksy wit drew laughter; his simple, direct answers won wild applause.
For example, each candidate was asked for his solution to the Iraq war. A red-faced Rohrabacher pounded his fist on the table while he attacked "gangster nations" (referring not to Iran or North Korea, but to members of the U.N. Security Council), said "Reagan won the Cold War" because he "got tough," defended the status quo under "President Bush's leadership," and opined about the hairdo on North Korea's Kim Jong-il. Brandt, an ex-Marine combat pilot, could have reminded the congressman that he'd avoided military service in Vietnam, but the Democrat was a gentleman. Instead, Brandt said Bush needs to fire his hawkish neo-conservative advisors, tighten security at the Long Beach shipping ports and along the nation's borders, track down missing weapons stockpiles and manage the war more competently. Gann--a 47-year-old program manager--said, "We can't force democracy and freedom on other people" and therefore "we shouldn't get involved in other countries." The audience clapped warmly for Brandt and Gann; the congressman won slight applause but louder booing.
When it was his turn, Lash leaned into the microphone and slowly said, "I'd send a plane to Iraq. Fill it with our soldiers. Bring them home. Send the next plane. Fill it with our soldiers. Bring them home. I'd do this until all of our soldiers are out of Iraq. It's an illegal, immoral and unnecessary war."
The room erupted in approval.
The microbiologist, Navy veteran and father of four daughters later stimulated the crowd by repeatedly attacking corporate power and the military-industrial complex, both of which he said are manufacturing non-existent "bogeymen" to boost profits.
"The reason we can't afford healthcare and education is because we've got 700 military bases in 131 countries," said Lash. "Nobody else at this table is looking out for you. They're controlled by corporate interests. I'm giving you a choice. You can send a human being to Congress for a change."
The room erupted again. Indeed, Lash seem to gather support in inverse proportion to Rohrabacher. In the beginning, Lash was greeted with a tea party clap. By the end of the debate, he had apparently won the room: near the end, he received a standing ovation so thunderous it sounded as if Troy Glaus had hit a grand slam.
Afterwards, I asked Rohrabacher why the audience favored Brandt, Gann (who repeatedly ridiculed the "insane War on Drugs") and Lash. "None of them has a chance to win, so they have the luxury of speaking directly to the people in the room," the congressman said. "There's no doubt I'll be re-elected so I have to speak to a broader audience."
Rohrabacher paused momentarily, smiled and then added, "I have to be more careful."
"You mean, you're afraid you could say something that would make you the next 'political human sacrifice' on KFI?" I asked.
"Yeah, you could say that, but I said what I needed to say on illegal immigration," he answered.
But wasn't he surprised by the depth of the reaction to Lash, who called for a "mini-revolution to end the culture of fear"?
"Look, I agree with him that corporations have way too much power in our society," said Rohrabacher. "I've been saying that for years, but his attack on so-called unbridled capitalism is nuts and his 'hug someone' philosophy is stupid."
The congressman wanted the public to know that his image as a "right-winger" is outdated. And true enough, the rest of the nation might be surprised at how much consensus there was between the Democrat, Libertarian, Republican and Green candidates. Each called discrimination against gays and lesbians intolerable, the War on Drugs misguided, campaign finance disclosures inadequate and coastal pollution alarming.
As he walked to his car, the eight-term congressman seemed satisfied. Republican voters dominate his gerrymandered district and he's raised 10 times more in campaign contributions, $669,000, than his closest competitor, Brandt.
"I hope you've learned tonight that I'm a creative thinker and I do a lot of work for the people," said Rohrabacher. "Free enterprise and low taxes is the way! The U.S. is the force for freedom on the planet! We've got to build a better world!"