Race to the Finish Line

A couple of snapshots from the campaign trail, as the neck-to-neck senatorial race between Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Matt Fong hits the homestretch:

Here’s Boxer, standing on a portable wooden riser to elevate her 5-foot frame, punching the hot buttons on her political scoreboard at a $100-per-person fund-raiser, hosted by Democrats for Israel at a hilltop Bel Air home.

“I’m standing up to the gun lobby, the anti-choice lobby and the polluters and that makes for a tough race,” the passionate campaigner tells some 100 standing supporters.

Tough race is right. As Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose name Boxer invokes frequently, told her, “Each Boxer campaign gives your supporters a near-death experience.”

A few days later, some 300 Jewish present and potential supporters of state Treasurer Matt Fong gather at the Beverly Hills estate of Alan Casden to listen to the Republican candidate, pose for photos and contribute $70,000 to his campaign coffers.

The earnest, low-key Fong stresses his role in pressuring Swiss banks to settle Holocaust-era claims, the need for a strong U.S. defense force, collaboration with Israel on a joint anti-ballistic missile system and elimination of the capital gains tax.

Rosalie Zalis, Gov. Pete Wilson’s senior policy adviser, introduces a late-arriving reporter to some faces in the crowd, obscured in the dim light of a nightfall garden party.

Attorney Jeffrey Donfeld, who served on President Nixon’s domestic council, is impressed by Fong’s strong defense stand and pledge to fight international terrorism.

Donfeld and his wife, Noelle, like a considerable portion of the attendees, are Orthodox, who are attracted, he says, “Because the Republicans are more in tune with the family values that are important to us.”

Israeli-born Dr. Gil Mileikowsky says he voted for Boxer in 1992 but is switching because “Israel is not a priority for her, it’s not on top of her list.”

Despite such sentiments, Israel is not a significant issue in this campaign, says veteran Democratic activist Howard Welinsky while attending the Bel Air fund-raiser for Boxer. “Support for Israel is bipartisan, there is not much difference between the candidates on that,” he says.

Nevertheless, both candidates present their bona fides on Israel in their campaign literature. Boxer’s include support for aid to Israel as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, four visits to the Jewish state and a lead role in pressing for sanctions targeting Iran.

Fong stresses his backing for U.S. military aid to, and cooperation with, Israel, and respect for Israel’s security needs.

Both candidates advocate moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and oppose American pressure on Israel during peace negotiations.

In the absence of major foreign policy controversies, the focus of the candidates’ debates has been on key domestic issues. In keeping with her Senate voting record, Boxer lines up on the liberal — too liberal, say her opponents — side, while Fong casts himself as a middle-of-the-road conservative — too conservative, say his opponents.

Their differences appear sharpest on abortion rights and gun control, two issues emphasized in most of Boxer’s stump speeches.

She is for full legal abortion rights, with Medicaid funding, and against requiring parental consent by minors. Fong endorses current legislation legalizing abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, but opposes public funding and late-term abortions, while backing the parental consent requirement.

Adding a personal note, Fong, who was adopted as a 6-month old, says, “I am glad my birth mother chose life.”

On gun control, Boxer supports and Fong opposes a widening of the federal ban on assault weapons. Boxer also advocates a ban on Saturday Night Specials, while Fong urges tougher sentences for criminals, rather than more restrictive gun laws.

The two are also far apart on most environmental legislation, with Boxer calling for strict enforcement, while Fong is concerned about the laws’ impact on the state’s agricultural sector.

One ever-hovering issue is the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. Here Boxer is in a particularly sensitive position, both as an outspoken feminist and as the mother-in-law of Tony Rodham, Hillary’s brother.

Although the affair has not dominated the Senate race, Boxer said that she has been “pretty fiercely” attacked on the issue by Fong.

While sharing a van ride with a reporter from her daughter’s home in Santa Monica, where she took a brief time-out to coddle her grandson, Boxer commented:

“No one has defended the president’s personal behavior, not even Bill Clinton himself. But most people draw a distinction between that and his policies, which have been so good for the country.”

Fong, responding to a questionnaire submitted by The Jewish Journal, charged Boxer with “A partisan double standard… by attacking her adversaries accused of sexual impropriety, but maintaining a deafening silence when her friend and fellow Democrat Bill Clinton was accused of similar behavior.”

Apparently only the Jewish and Asian-American media have taken public notice of the fact that the candidates are members of — and draw substantial financial support from — their respective communities.

“Religion has not been a major issue (in election campaigns) since John F. Kennedy won the presidency as a Catholic,” said Boxer, “though I think the Jewish community takes some pride in my achievements.”

Responding to a question, she notes that she is a member of Hadassah and Rodef Sholom, a Reform congregation in Marin County, and serves on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. “I contribute to other Jewish causes, but don’t have the time to be personally involved,” Boxer said.

Fong touches rarely on his Chinese background, but told The Jewish Journal that “Members of my family historically have suffered discrimination… in not being able to have the job they want or buying the family home they want.”

Fong won some friends in the Jewish community by imposing sanctions against Swiss banks, but he maintains that he tried to do so quietly and not to “score political points.”

Less media attention has been given to Boxer’s role as a member of the Senate Banking Committee, where she never missed a session during the lengthy hearings that finally forced the Swiss banks to come to terms.

From a national perspective, four of the Senate’s 10 Jewish members are up for re-election, and their fate may well determine whether the Republicans can pick up five seats to reach a filibuster-proof majority of 60.

Political analysts believe the Jewish vote could be a decisive factor in the tight California race, as well as the equally close Senate contest in New York State.