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Extreme Politics

[whitespace] Barbara Boxer & Matt Fong
Christopher Gardner

Party Flavors: Republican Matt Fong, who holds no legislative experience, is giving incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer a fight in the U.S. Senator's race, targeting Northern California's Asian voters and trying to make his Republican positions appear less extreme than they are.

Sen. Barbara Boxer is painted as a radical, while her opponent, Matt Fong, is branded a moderate. But her votes and his positions tell a different story.

By Michael Learmonth

SEN. BARBARA BOXER has been struggling with the scarlet "L" she's worn on her chest ever since she won her Senate seat in 1992. But in the waning weeks of the campaign, she's virtually stopped trying to change voters' opinions that she's a flaky liberal. Instead, Boxer has been spending her considerable war chest--$3 million as of two weeks before Election Day--to shape the voters' opinion of her opponent, Matt Fong.

At a Democratic rally at the Labor Temple in San Jose last month, Boxer enumerated the icons of the conservative fringe who have rallied to support Fong. As she listed the names--Oliver North, Henry Kissinger, Dan Quayle and, of course, Newt Gingrich--her message took hold with an elderly woman in the crowd who raised a hand to her forehead and exclaimed to no one in particular, "This man is crazy!"

Somehow, despite Fong's right-wing allies and his ultraconservative portfolio of positions, Boxer has thus far been unable to crack the popular image of Fong: that he is a moderate Republican, more Tom Campbell than Newt Gingrich.

For his part, it seems that Fong is counting on his Asian ethnicity to win minority votes, while working the radical fringe. Take his support for a water project in the Sierra foothills, which would cost the taxpayers at least $1 billion and submerge 50 miles of a wild river under a reservoir.

The Auburn Dam was approved by Congress back in 1965 and construction was begun in 1967. Just south of Auburn and 35 miles northwest of Sacramento, the American River was diverted out of its bed and into a 30-foot-long tunnel bored into the side of the canyon. Construction of the dam was stopped abruptly in 1975 when a 5.7-magnitude earthquake revealed an active fault beneath the site.

By then, economics, science and public opinion had all turned on dams. The dam was never built, but the project persisted, due almost entirely to the efforts of Rep. John Doolittle, who represents the district containing the dam site. Over the years, Doolittle changed the purpose of his pet project--from irrigation to drinking-water supply to power generation to flood control. Opponents called it "a project in search of a purpose."

Despite Auburn's fall from grace--even among fiscal hawks and moderates in his own party (like local Republican Tom Campbell)--Fong has made construction of the now bizarre dam a centerpiece of his stand on California water policy.

FONG'S OTHER POSITIONS on the environment, the economy and foreign policy also plant him firmly in his party's right wing. He promises to scale back popular, effective environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Fong also supports cutting capital-gains taxes, an idea that plays well with some moderates in entrepreneur-rich Silicon Valley but that also harks back to '80s-vintage trickle-down theory. Fong is also a proponent of the flat tax, a regressive idea with few followers other than the quixotic conservative tycoon Steve Forbes.

On national defense, Fong's positions are straight out of Ronald Reagan's playbook. He believes the military has been cut back too far and says that he would build the Star Wars missile defense system, and even scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to make it legal.

Thus far in the race, Fong has not had to account for his conservative stances. On abortion, he played up his opposition during the primary. But pundits noted that he magically began to "better articulate" his position for the general election. His revised position leaves the door ajar for abortion in the first trimester, a position that should keep at least some Republican women from jumping ship, as they did in 1992.

Fong opposes federal funding for abortions and supports parental-consent laws for girls under the age of 18, but he is somewhat shielded from criticism because of his rationale: he was adopted. Similarly, although he supported anti-immigrant proposals like Props. 209 and 227, he is insulated from attack by the fact that he's Chinese-American.

Despite Fong's far-right footholds, incumbent Boxer has been unable to define her opponent as a conservative to audiences outside the Labor Temple. And with several million dollars and just over a week before the election, she's ignoring the question which pollster Mervin Field once observed that voters ask first: "How do I feel about the incumbent?"

Her recent strategy reflects her inability to shake off the voters' impression that she is strident, shrill and too liberal. But what she's really done is vote along Democratic Party lines, just like her partner in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein.

A celebrated "moderate," Feinstein seems to share little of Boxer's "shrill" stigma even though they both voted for abortion rights, a ban on assault weapons, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, funding the IMF and reforming the IRS.

In fact, over the last two years, on votes deemed "significant" by the nonpartisan Project Vote Smart, Feinstein and Boxer have departed only twice, and both times Boxer took the more conservative position. Boxer voted yes on a bill that would make it more difficult for the administration to close military bases without congressional approval; Feinstein voted no. And Boxer voted no on a bill that would have increased her pay 2.3 percent, while Feinstein supported it.

Fong may succeed in painting Boxer as extreme, but more because of public perception than because of her actual performance. She is, unabashedly, a fighter. She's short, Jewish and from Brooklyn and sounds a little like Joan Rivers. She is an activist for the causes she believes in, a stance which appeals to her core supporters but may turn away voters who prefer more stately representation in the Senate than in the rabble-rousing House of Representatives.

In order for her to win back her seat, Boxer is counting on a robust turnout in an off-year election, when turnout is typically thin. Suburban conservatives vote far more regularly than urban and poor Democrats, making off-year elections good ones for Republicans.

In the closing weeks of the campaign the onus is on Boxer to shine light onto the kookier positions of her opponent. Her job may be to bring the Auburn Dam in from the hinterlands.

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From the October 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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