By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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But the fact that Fong's campaign has gone on the air to defend him against Boxer's abortion spots suggest that her ads have begun cutting into the 3-to-1 favorable impression voters have of Fong. And in the absence of any affirmative sense of who Matt Fong is other than a steady, likable guy, Boxer's punches will likely continue to score points with women and swing voters.
The campaign ad that could potentially do the most damage to Fong's image is an ad the Boxer campaign will probably never run. Call it the "Asian Money" spot. It could go something like this:
[In a deep, ominous voice] Fact: In 1995, Matt Fong personally solicited a $50,000 campaign contribution from this man [closeup of Ted Sioeng], whom U.S. intelligence officials say was at the center of a Chinese government plot to illegally influence American political elections.
Matt Fong claims he didn't know that this contribution was illegal.
But a United States Senate subcommittee called Matt Fong's explanation "UNPERSUASIVE" and said Fong had "EVERY REASON TO SUSPECT" he was taking illegal, foreign money.
Fact: In 1996, Ted Sioeng gave another $50,000 to a Republican campaign organization after Matt Fong arranged for him to meet in person with Speaker Newt Gingrich [photo of Sioeng and Gingrich together].
Matt Fong told government investigators that he didn't know anything about this contribution - but the Los Angeles Times says Fong's wife was paid a $6,500 "commission" for helping raise the money. Etc., etc.
Potent, vicious stuff, which could well backfire on Boxer if she ever stooped to use it - which is probably why she won't. The Boxer campaign has nibbled around the edges of the issue - a current Boxer ad, for instance, says Fong wants to give HMOs "the same legal immunity enjoyed by foreign diplomats" while panning over a gray, grainy image of Fong's face.
But for the most part, Fong has gotten a pass on what remains the biggest gaffe of his cautious career. In part this is due to adept damage control - within hours of the story breaking in Newsweek and the L.A. Times, Fong returned the money - and in part, Fong has been lucky. When the Senate subcommittee investigating fund-raising abuses released its findings last February, Fong was so far behind in the polls that the report's account of Fong's evasive answers quickly blew over.
But even if the "Asian Money" scandal doesn't become an issue in the campaign, it has already cost Fong considerably where it counts - in his campaign coffers. Since the allegations of a "Chinese plot" surfaced in the fall of 1996, congressional investigators and FBI agents have become a familiar and unwelcome presence in the Chinese-American community, questioning literally hundreds of contributors, including many longtime citizens and permanent residents whose only apparent offense was their ethnicity. The effect of this dragnet has been to intimidate large portions of what is Fong's natural donor base.
"No question, the investigation has had a chilling impact," says Charlie Woo, a senior statesman of L.A.'s Chinese-American community who has raised money for Fong. "Many times when I have called people and said, 'Let's go help Matt,' the most common response is that they are afraid of any further investigation." During his unsuccessful bid for mayor, Mike Woo raised over $6 million, mostly from the Chinese community; Fong, says Charlie Woo, will be lucky to raise half that. An irony which is surely not lost on Fong is that his mother was forced to withdraw from her 1988 Senate primary bid after questions were raised about the finances of her second husband, millionaire Singapore businessman Henry Eu, who refused to file financial-disclosure statements as required by law.
Anger over the inquisition, on the other hand, has had the effect of galvanizing support in the Chinese-American community behind Fong and heightened the symbolic quality his candidacy has in that community. A Fong victory, says Judy Chu, a Monterey Park city councilwoman and Democratic activist, "would ease some of the disillusion" caused by the investigation and "show that the political process can work for Asian-Americans." In a tight race, a massive turnout of Asian-Americans, traditionally low-propensity voters, could well put Fong over the top.
Should Fong lose, however, all his candidacy would leave behind is more bitterness and disillusion. Fong has not, in the manner of other successful ethnic politicians, done a lot to bring others into the political process in his seven years in public office. There are no proteges of Matt Fong moving up through the political pipeline, no political organization he has built other than a contributor list. "I am afraid there would not be anything left behind," concedes Charlie Woo.
Which, in the end, would prove a fitting legacy for the kind of campaign Fong has run, and the kind of politician Fong has been all along.
David Cogan contributed to this story.