By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As their candidate works a room of film-industry conservatives at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Matt Fong's handlers, puffing away on cigarettes on the patio outside, are feeling optimistic - cautiously so, because everything about the Fong campaign is cautious, but optimistic nonetheless.
It's less than three weeks before the election, and the first wave of Barbara Boxer's ad barrage hasn't put a dent in the poll numbers that show Fong in a dead heat with California's junior senator. And the campaign-finance reports filed that morning show that they have out-raised Boxer almost 2 to 1 since the primary.
But what has loosed an uncharacteristic chortle from campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt is a cartoon that appeared in that morning's San Diego Union-Tribune. It shows Fong, looking 8 feet tall, standing placidly alongside a contorted, diminutive Boxer who is jumping up and down, pointing her finger at Fong and yelling "extremist!"
"It was perfect," crows Schmidt. "Just perfect."
The image encapsulates the improbable campaign that has brought Fong - a bland, careful politician if there ever was one - a short step away from joining the world's most exclusive club. As Schmidt is well aware, his candidate is not in the race because he has a more compelling stance on the issues - on that score Boxer gets the nod with poll respondents. He is running even with Barbara Boxer because he is not Barbara Boxer. He is, with his affable, plodding demeanor, his calm, studious mien, the un-Boxer. In a recent poll, nearly a third of likely Fong voters said their main reason for supporting him was that he was "not Barbara Boxer." No other answer was even close.
"This campaign is not about the issues," says another Fong campaign aide. "It's about a steady hand on the tiller. That's Matt Fong. That's our message." And their strategy, as the cartoon suggests, is to avoid doing or saying anything that would detract from his appearing, as the aide puts it, "senatorial."
Inside the hotel's salmon-pink Rodeo Room, as Fong delivers what has been billed a "major speech on the economy" to the small, celebrity-free crowd (gatherings of film-industry conservatives are by definition small, celebrity-free affairs), he is performing right on cue. The speech, like Fong himself, has no rough edges, makes no dramatic statements or bold proposals and is more or less likable. Couched in Jack Kemp-style rhetoric about "increasing opportunity" and "knocking down barriers," there are riffs on "cutting government waste" and "building bridges between communities." The one indication that he has ideas that fall well outside the mushy middle is his backing of a flat tax - which, tellingly, is the only issue (other than his passion for the Star Wars missile defense system) that seems to get Fong fired up. Otherwise it is safe, unthreatening, steady and boring.
That may be just as his campaign wants it. But it doesn't begin to answer the question that Fong's opponents have tried, unsuccessfully, to pin him down on in the past: Who is Matt Fong and what is he about?
Fong is too well-prepared a candidate to fumble that fundamental question, Why are you running for (in this case) U.S. Senate? But in a recent interview, he comes pretty close. "I mean, I mean," he stammers, and then finds some traction, seguing from a throwaway line about wanting to "make a positive difference" into his standard stump rhetoric about "knocking down barriers." It's not a bad line for Fong, one that resonates well with his bid to become the first Chinese-American senator from the continental U.S., and recalls his billing by Jack Kemp as a "21st-century Republican."
But his difficulty in finding the handle on the answer underscores the curiously indistinct quality of Fong's political career. People who knew Fong growing up didn't see in him the passion for politics that marked the career of his mother, March Fong Eu, a trailblazing political firebrand from the Bay Area who served five terms as California's secretary of state, retiring in 1994 to become ambassador to Micronesia.
"I was surprised when Matt first ran for office," says Matthew Gagin, a former aide to March Fong Eu who has been close to Fong since he was a teenager. "When he was growing up, I pegged him to have a business career, legal career or military career."
In fact, Fong, 44, worked stints in all three fields, and didn't especially distinguish himself in any one of them. Since graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1975, he has led a peripatetic professional life, pressing onward through a series of careers and offices, building a long resume without really leaving his mark.
Upon completing his pilot training, Fong was posted to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where he served in a series of unglamorous jobs - equipment control officer, equipment control training, assistant chief of data automation, chief of data automation - receiving promotions and commendations on schedule but winning none of the coveted assignments or medals that would have pegged him as a comer.
In 1980, after his commission expired, Fong returned to California and enrolled in Pepperdine's MBA program, which he followed with a law degree at Southwestern. He ran an import-export business with exceedingly modest success - "We didn't go bankrupt," Fong told one audience recently. His superiors at the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton remember him as a "strong, competent lawyer," but "not a rainmaker," and in any case he left before he could be considered for partner. "The paramount word that comes to mind when you look at Matt professionally is 'competence,'" says Gagin.