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Flip a Coin 

How Wally and Sheila could’ve saved millions

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000
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Got a call from Mayor Riordan the other day, or so he said. The Great Stone Voice identified himself: ”Hi, I‘m Mayor Richard Riordan,“ and then told me to vote for Assemblyman Wally Knox for state senator in the 23rd District.

I immediately replied, ”Mayor Riordan, I gotta tell you one thing. This is Santa Monica, where one of the serious advantages of residency is that you are not, in fact, our mayor.“ But the telephonic Riordan voice ignored me.

It turned out to be an aural apparition of one of those electronic message-multiplying devices; in someone’s little PC, a disk was turning. The disk had the mayor‘s voice on it: the PC made the phone calls. And in hundreds of largely Democratic Santa Monica homes -- that of Knox’s opponent included -- phones were ringing and the word was given from the adjacent, duly reviled metropolis‘ Republican mayor that we should vote for Riordan’s favorite of the two leading Democratic Senate candidates.

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Now whose brilliant idea was this? The campaign of Assemblyman Wally Knox‘s, as it happens. Of whom more anon. But meanwhile, the very next night, or thereabouts, I got another call, a live one. This was from a non-elected, non-official who didn’t identify herself. She said she was conducting a poll; I usually feel sorry for people who have to call strangers and ask them things. Or maybe it makes me feel smug to know there is one job even worse than any I have held. So if such callers can only refrain from asking me for money or my credit card number, I try to hear them out.

As I did this time, though this was no ordinary poll. Indeed. After questions about other politicians, most of whose names (including Riordan‘s) my caller was unable to pronounce, the ”pollster“ started asking me things like, would I vote for Wally Knox even if I knew he had a lousy attendance record when he sat on the Community College Board? Or that he had then voted for a new, sumptuous X-million-dollar office tower for that very board when the impoverished district was busy slicing away essential courses? Or that he had done other things she mentioned, which I was obviously not supposed to like? Of course, I said. ”Yes, I would vote for him“ anyway, just so no one would think I was getting soft.

In fact, I had no idea for whom I was going to vote in this primary race. Now, I was having further problems because the Dick Riordan (who in real life has never called me up at all, or returned any of my calls to him, for that matter) endorsement of Knox was a turnoff for me. But then so was the subsequent knock-Knox-joke call on behalf of Knox’s Senate rival, Assemblywoman Sheila James Kuehl (whose own last name Kuehl‘s ”pollster“ managed to mispronounce).

Both calls, of course, were expensive campaign stunts, and if they’d both been the only contact I‘d had with either candidate, I might vote for neither. Now, I happen to know Kuehl and Knox personally, if slightly. And they’re well-known to me by (high) political reputation.

Nevertheless, the entire Kuehl-Knox race was beginning to irritate me, particularly because nearly a million dollars per candidate is being spent.

This is more than it takes to elect a U.S., instead of state, senator in other parts of this nation. And it‘s tempting to consider both candidates -- with their illustrious Assembly records capping illustrious careers in other fields -- overqualified for the Sacramento Senate job. Such is the way of term limits, of course.

Wally Knox, of course, has a full-house resume as a longtime labor lawyer, a Viet vet, a Harvard boy -- plus a wife and two kids. Just make him into a corporate attorney and he’d be every Republican‘s dream candidate. Yet he’s followed the progressive path for his 20-year public career.

But Kuehl trumps Knox with her queen-high straight-flush c.v.: Even in her mid-50s, she‘s still Zelda, the guileful gamine of the classic TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. She may be the first gay, woman speaker pro tem, she may be a Harvard lawyer, but people on the street still shout ”Hey, Zelda“ everywhere she goes. Probably no other elected official in California has such benign, instant recognition. And while Knox tends to drone in person, Kuehl speaks in taut, witty sentences that suggest that Dobie’s late creator, humorist Max Shulman, is scripting her dialogue from beyond.

The two candidates have accomplished so much in office, have worked so well, first, in spite of the repellent Pete Wilson and now with the recalcitrant Gray Davis (and, most of the time, with one another), that you do wish you could vote for both. Kuehl accuses Knox of running to the right of her on issues like law and order. And, of course, he‘s a straight man, a family man, and she isn’t. Well, that‘s where Knox has made his accommodation with things as they are. But he’s even stronger on labor issues than he is on law and families, where Kuehl has made her own accommodations. For instance, with the Santa Monica political faction opposing the local, zoned Living Wage ordinance. She says she doesn‘t oppose such ordinances elsewhere, but what’s the use of saying that, when you oppose them where you live? And perhaps her major labor endorsement -- with a $114,000 contribution -- comes from one of our least likable unions, that of state correctional officers. Which lobbies for more prisons at the expense of just about everything the state of California needs more. And she has the support of Sheriff Lee Baca.

It may be, therefore, that Knox is running both to the right and left of Kuehl. Or vice versa. On the one hand, Dick Riordan recently hosted a fund-raiser for Knox. On the other hand, Knox has a vast preponderance of labor support. As one local labor leader put it, ”Sheila is generally good on labor issues. But Wally has built personal relationships with most of us in the leadership. She‘s a friend, but he’s been a warrior for us.“ So his name is on the County Federation mailer.

But Kuehl keeps coming up with more campaign money than Knox. She‘d raised $1.029 million by last week, the Times reported. Despite the Riordan affair, Knox was $100,000 behind Kuehl with a total of $923,344. More than a fourth of this total was in the form of loans, mostly from Knox to himself. And in the last days of the last reporting period, the Times wrote, Kuehl was raising twice as much dough as Knox.

In the end, I guess it is all this money that bothers me most. I went through the pair’s legislative records to try to pick a winner. But Knox and Kuehl themselves were unable to top each other at this game in their own debates so far. Which suggests that their legislative accomplishments are pretty much as equal as their personal lives are distinctive.

So you have to ask yourself, what has that $2 million they‘ve spent bought the world so far? Not a real choice for the voters, who are going to get pretty much the same performance from whoever wins (there being no serious Republican challenger) in what is presently Tom Hayden’s district.

Why not avoid the expense altogether? Certainly, this suggestion comes too late to change the process in the 23rd Senate District. But next time local voters face such a clash of tantamouncy, here‘s a suggestion that could save the contenders a vat of money. Instead of raising millions, why doesn’t someone just take a 25-cent piece. And, after both candidates agree to abide by the result, simply flip the coin. That way, at least, Dick Riordan gets to leave me alone, at least in the privacy of my home.#

For excerpts of Sheila Kuehl‘s and Wally Knox’s interviews with the Weekly editorial board, see our Web site at www.laweekly.com.

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