Congressman Jim Rogan (R-Glendale) has been falling up his entire life. Every step since childhood seems to have foretold an invincible destiny for great things, an immutable course guided by a higher power.
But in his race for re-election in the 27th District, some are watching with amazement, because Rogan just might be denied something he wants.
The mere possibility that Rogan might not win what he desires is astonishing enough. That his first credible challenge has come in the form of Democrat Barry Gordon, a character actor typically seen in sitcoms playing nebbish accountants, is enough for some Republicans to wonder whether there is a tear in the fabric of space.
Even a plum seat on the Judiciary Committee is causing Rogan problems. The machinations of the impeachment inquiry have kept him from campaigning in the district. He's scored time in front of the national press to earnestly claim a presumption of innocence for President Clinton, but his votes have been strictly party-line.
That he's a former judge and prosecutor who voted to release secret grand-jury testimony has been fodder for Gordon's charge that Rogan is carrying the rope for a partisan lynching.
Campaign literature for Rogan describes a filmic life story upon which his near-legendary status in the district is based. The heroic tale begins with a bastard child in wharf squalor, dependent on public assistance, his mother ultimately jailed for welfare fraud. Rogan was raised by relatives until they died, then returned to his mother and an alcoholic stepfather. When his mother divorced, Rogan left school and went to work.
He was a bartender and bouncer through law school, had a short stint as a corporate lawyer, then became an assistant district attorney. The last is characterized as “gang prosecutor,” “criminal prosecutor” or “gang-murder prosecutor,” depending on the thrust of the literature.
Made a Municipal Court judge at 33, he was the youngest in the state. He left for a turn through the state Assembly, where he won acclaim. When calculated serendipity saw 12-term Congressman Carlos Moorhead retire, Rogan was there to fill the void.
Even his move to Washington, D.C., served the “exceptional everyman” image. With a longtime pal, he moved the household for his wife and young twin daughters in a U-Haul truck, the journey, his excitement and the impending burdens chronicled in a piece he wrote for the hometown paper.
Soon he was named to the influential Committee on Commerce, a contribution cash cow not normally entrusted to callow newcomers. House Speaker Newt Gingrich made him assistant majority whip, responsible for corralling and monitoring the votes of fellow Republicans.
The death of Sonny Bono opened another door. Bono's seat on the powerful Judiciary Committee had to be filled. And while even esteemed veterans are rarely allowed to sit on both Commerce and the Judiciary, Rogan was. He arrived in time to accept delivery of a certain report from Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, capturing national press coverage and sharing his wisdom for network news cameras.
Republicans and Democrats alike can recite his tale. More than merely supported, he's been held in awe.
Whether it's a homeowners group or business people, activists or the country-club elite, Rogan speaks and leaves them spellbound. With restrained outrage over the hypocrisies of politics and assurances that he's determined to be different, Rogan comes off like the One we've been waiting for, the title character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
So how can someone whose life is so blessed that it seems blessed even by adversity be in a race so close that the California Journal still grades it a tossup?
Lately some things have worked against Rogan. For starters, though his district has been a Republican stronghold for decades, 1996 saw Democrats elected to state Assembly and Senate seats. Weak Republican candidates and increased registration among Democrats made the impossible begin to seem plausible. The district, which includes most of the Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena tri-cities, stands with 44 percent registered as Democrats and 39 percent as Republicans. Given traditional turnout, that's considered a tie.
And challenger Gordon has proved a much stronger candidate than many had expected – perhaps Rogan among them. An attorney as well as an actor, Gordon is also a past president of the Screen Actors Guild. That helped him develop skills and contacts important today.
At the podium, Gordon dispels the nebbish image with a commanding presence and inspiring speeches reminiscent of party icons. His “New Democrat” rhetoric is pro-choice and for societal duties, combined with fiscal responsibility and an end to throwing money at problems.
Gordon's strength has emboldened Rogan's critics to point at cracks in the halo that a handful have grumbled about for years.
The youthful judicial appointment came from Governor George Deukmejian after Rogan made a well-publicized conversion from Democrat to Republican. Only recently have a few dared use the word opportunist. Later, when Rogan chased nomination to the Assembly race, he used as a prop a personal letter from Ronald Reagan – not mentioning the letters he'd written just a few years before, castigating Reagan for his policies in Central America.
He was a proud Republican when the party's platform included the popular “Contract With America.” But in recent years he's played down party to maintain the guise of a moderate. Recent Rogan campaign literature makes no mention of party, save for a reference to his “working with the Democratic leadership.” Gone are the photos he used in previous races, himself alongside President Reagan. In mail sent just last week, he even neglected to mention his Judiciary seat and his appointment as one of Gingrich's whips.
He has accomplished what many have tried and failed at. He's perceived as a moderate, a man who seems willing to grant the opposing party some fair points. But he's done it while voting the party line. Rogan's record earned him a rating of zero from the ACLU and 100 from the Christian Coalition.
Time and again, Rogan's powerful rhetoric claims a standard far different from what he actually does. He wins friends with common-sense talk, confessing disgust for partisan bickering, regretfully condemning tactics of his own party as well as the other side. So enraptured, fans politely avert their eyes when he nonetheless flings the dreaded “liberal” label and aligns himself with an intolerant religious right.
Like many who campaign on character, ethics and biblical principles, when Rogan was criticized for taking his Assembly campaign into the gutter – he falsely implied his opponent was the subject of a federal corruption probe – his response was “[My opponent] started it. He got a taste of his own medicine.”
Perhaps because of his rapid success, Rogan has a thin skin. During the Assembly race, he advocated teaching creationism in public schools. When his challenger opposed that, Rogan howled that his church was under “attack.” Criticized for taking a raise given Assembly members in 1994, Rogan whined that he’d been wronged by his opponent’s “lies,” claiming distinctions that sounded much like Bill Clinton asking what we mean by the word is.
Gordon has also made hay with Rogan’s local record of sudden, shallow interest in issues specific to his district, token efforts that vanish in non-election years. The latest involves battles over proposed expansion of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport. Virtually silent on the issue throughout years of litigation and fighting, in August he responded to growing criticism for his lack of leadership. Protesting that he wasn’t told the date of an upcoming, widely publicized summit on the issue until days before the session, he claimed a previous commitment that morning.
As an up-and-coming pol he railed against colleagues abusing franking privileges with campaign literature in the guise of constituent updates. But in September, Rogan's congressional office sent a flurry of personalized constituent mail, much of it leaning on his former job as a “gang-murder prosecutor.” He touted work on anti-crime bills, failing to mention that the laws promoted as vital were dusty old efforts, including one stagnant bill last seen before Congress in May 1997.
Contradictions notwithstanding, Rogan remains popular in the 27th. His supporters are zealous, and his committee seats guarantee a steady stream of campaign cash. Despite avid support from insurance lobbyists, the NRA and tobacco companies, many locals continue to see Jim Rogan as every humble role ever played by Jimmy Stewart rolled into one.
Political journals and paid consultants throughout the country continue to peg the race as a tie, a seat targeted by Democrats because they're sure they have a chance. Gordon has done his homework, and he's a credible challenger. But one can't help but wonder if the pundits have all forgotten whom they're looking at. It's Jim Rogan, the man who only falls up.