Feinstein vs. Huffington: Wealth battles wealth
in the race for U.S. Senate
Kay Cory of Patterson is the kind of Democrat that worries Dianne
Feinstein. A bookkeeper for a 2000-acre farm near this Central Valley
town, Cory, who considers herself primarily a homemaker, says she will
be voting for Republican Mike Huffington on election day.
It's not so much what Huffington has to say -- he had just repeated
most of it to about 40 onlookers in Patterson's central plaza -- it's
that she's "unhappy with Feinstein and her performance."
It turns out that Cory is unhappy about a lot of things that are
happening in California: the tide of illegal immigrants, crime that has
even intruded on the quiet of Patterson, and the diminished quality of
education. If things get much worse, Cory says, she'll leave the state.
And if you're an unhappy voter, who better to blame than an incumbent
Those who are running the Huffington campaign know this well. Big
chunks of the California electorate are unhappy with things in the state
and they are looking for someone to blame. The Huffington forces are
only too happy to oblige. The one-term congressman has spent a
considerable portion of his even more considerable wealth trying to
convince voters that Feinstein has failed them on a variety of issues
from crime to taxes. Never mind that Huffington, himself, has virtually
no record that could demonstrate he would be any improvement. That may
"Is it possible for him to spend his way into office without ever
having to answer any questions? I'm afraid it is," offered Kam Kuwata,
Feinstein's campaign manager.
A year ago, Feinstein was considered all but a shoo-in for a full,
six-year term in the U.S. Senate. She had won statewide election for the
first time in 1992, beating Orange County's John Seymour, who had been
appointed to the post by Pete Wilson when Wilson became governor. That
was her second run statewide; she lost to Wilson in the 1990 race for
Well known to the state's voters, Feinstein had crafted for herself
an image as a moderate, hard-working politician. With the support of the
Democrats who control the U. S. Senate, Feinstein made a fast start,
winning a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, gaining passage
of a ban on assault weapons and securing passage of a bill to protect
Mojave Desert park land. She was way ahead in the polls.
As a result, her fast start helped drive out a number of
better-established Republicans who had been considering the run.
But there was one other factor that kept some prominent Republicans
at bay: Huffington. The Santa Barbara congressman, who was also in his
first term in Washington, elbowed his way to the front of the GOP line
by his willingness to spend his own money to get elected to office.
Until a few years ago, Huffington was a resident of Texas, where his
family owned an oil and gas business. Following the sale of the firm in
1990, Huffington the next year moved to Santa Barbara and soon announced
that he would challenge long-term Republican incumbent Robert
Lagomarsino for Congress. Huffington spend $5.6 million of his own money
and captured the Republican nomination.
In his first 18 months in office, he has been a decidedly
non-traditional elected official. He has introduced less than a
hand-full of measures, saying he was sent to Washington reduce the size
of government, not increase it. Beyond that he has even spurned most
forms of constituent involvement -- including helping businesses from
his own district -- a practice he says amounts to catering to special
But in truth, he's spent much of his only term running for the U.S.
In the primary, he brushed aside former Congressman William
Dannemeyer from Orange County and first-timer Kate Squires. In fact,
many of his early campaign commercials were aimed at Feinstein. Although
Feinstein on occasion was able to respond, Huffington has been able --
using more than $10 million of own money through early September -- to
swamp the airwaves with his commercials and to respond each time
Feinstein tries a new tack.
Despite his presence on television, Huffington remains an enigma to
much of the public and even to the political press that is trying to
cover his campaign. He was initially perceived as something of moderate
-- a stance that was enhanced by his campaign against the very
conservative Dannemeyer -- because of his pro-abortion rights position,
support of allowing gays to serve in the military and his opposition to
off-shore oil drilling. But since beginning his campaign, his themes
have been more populist and more conservative. Since the primary, he's
shortened his first name from Michael to the more familiar Mike. He
pushes his status as an outsider, turning Feinstein's long years in
public service into a liability. He calls himself a successful
businessman who now wants to turn his attention to public service.
But a scathing Wall Street Journal story concluded that Huffington
had a "mixed record at the family company" and quoted business
associates who considered him an "intelligent but undirected
'silver-spoon kid' riding his father's success, a devotee of
self-improvement books who dabbled restlessly in many pursuits without
notable accomplishment in any of them."
Despite his vast fortune, Huffington has told those at campaign
appearances that he is "just like you" and has pointed out that he
donates his congressional salary to charity and refuses to travel at
taxpayer expense. At the same time, he refuses to make public his tax
returns, a practice that has become common for elected officials, and
then lambastes Feinstein because there were years when business reverses
resulted in her paying no federal taxes at all, information that became
available because Feinstein did make her returns public.
Huffington's pro-environment posture -- a position popular in coastal
Santa Barbara -- has apparently become more conservative as he
campaigned through the Central Valley. It's true, he opposed off-shore
oil drilling, but only, he says, so that resource can be available at
some time in the future, say 100 years from now. And he now chastises
Feinstein for her support of Big Green, although he was once on the
board of one of the initiative's sponsors. He is also campaigning for
changes in the federal endangered species act, which he says hampers
farming and development in the state. His most significant policy
proposal to date has been the elimination of the government supported
welfare system, which he says has not only failed but has morally
corrupted those who receive aid. Better to let the private sector take
over this effort with the government's role being reduced to providing
block grants to local governments that can then be given to private
agencies. The welfare system, says Huffington, quoting from research by
the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, has
consumed more than $5 trillion in the past 30 years without any success.
Huffington, however, in his campaign rhetoric fails to mention that
nearly half of that money goes to medical aid for the poor, a program
that, according to campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Grossman, Huffington
does not plan to curtail. Indeed Huffington's dislike of welfare seems
not to come from traditional conservative or even Libertarian roots.
Grossman insists, for example, that saving the taxpayers' money is not
Huffington's motive for seeking an end to welfare. Instead, it is
apparently part of a plan to improve the moral quality of the country.
In Huffington's first television commercial, he promoted the "Book of
Virtues," by former education secretary William Bennett. His wife, the
writer Arianna Stassinopolis Huffington, has recently produced a book
called "The Fourth Impulse," which argues that need to take care of one
another -- charity -- is the fourth basic human impulse after survival,
power and sex.
The Huffingtons argue that public welfare robs the recipient of
dignity and is not effective. Turning these efforts to the private
sector not only allows charity to be delivered in a more humane and
effective way, but gives those who are well-off the opportunity to
improve the spiritual quality of their lives by acting on their "fourth
impulse" through private giving and more importantly, actively
participating in programs for the needy.
Feinstein campaign manager Kuwata argues that the spiritual nature of
the Huffingtons is something the professionals running the campaign
would just as soon ignore. Indeed, Kuwata argues that there are at least
three sides to the Huffington campaign. The first is the one run by the
professionals (Huffington has hired just about every loose Republican
consultant available for the effort, including advisers Ken Khachigian,
Lyn Nofziger, and consultant Ed Rollins, who now has charge of the
day-to-day campaign activities), the second is the spiritual side that
reflects his wife's interests, and the third is the erratic nature of
the candidate himself. This latter trait emerged, Kuwata argues, when
Huffington, apparently unbeknownst to his campaign handlers, showed up
outside a Feinstein fund-raising event in Washington in an effort to
confront his opponent.
"As long as the professionals are in control ... things go smoothly.
But when he's in charge, anything can happen," said Kuwata.
The notion that there are separate campaign elements is derided by
Khachigan. "Decisions get made in a community manner, but at the end of
the day, there's only one guy on the ballot and he's not afraid of
making a decision. I don't think we've ever really been off track. After
all the ingredients are in, you create a souffle. Every so often, it
Furthermore, Khachigan says he does not worry that the spiritual
roots of Huffington's politics will worry voters--despite efforts by
Feinstein to plant such roots. "There are a lot of things I worry
about, but that's not one of them," he said.
Kuwata, though, believes that the untested Huffington is capable of
making mistakes before Election Day, if he ever actually engages in the
rough and tumble of the campaign.
So far, though, Huffington has avoided such problems. For one thing,
he stays as far from political reporters as possible. For much of the
primary he declined to give reporters his campaign schedule, so any
contact with the candidate was difficult. Since the primary, he has held
one general press availability, following a speech in Sacramento. It
lasted about six minutes.
Although campaign schedules are now, on occasion, available, the
events, such as his tour of a vegetable process plant in Patterson
followed by 10 minutes of citizen questions in the plaza, create no
opportunities for detailed questioning. He does, occasionally, talk to
newspaper editorial boards, but he has not been available for individual
interviews for months. Yet, he has criticized Feinstein for refusing to
sit down face-to-face with him to discuss debate prospects. Kuwata says
the comments are a pose designed to avoid real discussions about
Khachigan says that Huffington has been available, if not always in
the manner reporters would prefer. In fact, he say's it is Feinstein
who is running a "Rose Curtain" campaign. "When was the last time she
did an hour on a radio show?" he asks.
Khachigan says it is Feinstein who wants to avoid close scrutiny.
"She doesn't want to discuss a lot of these things because she knows
that her positions on a lot of things are not very popular with the
voters of this state."
Whether Huffington or Feinstein wants to debate, or not, may turn out
to be an irrelevant question. Huffington clearly is prepared to run a
campaign that doesn't rely on debates or speeches, contact with the
press or even contact with the voters -- except through television. He
has the money to spend to reach voters with whatever message he chooses
as often as he likes. If that's enough to win elective office,
Huffington will be senator-elect on November 8th.
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