Will Sing For Votes
Barbara Boxer Stumps in Salinas.
Thursday, August 13, 1998
"Whenever I want you, all I have to do, is dream," U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer harmonized with La Rondala Alisal, a mariachi-style band of Alisal Community School students. "Dream, dream, dree-eam; dree-eee-eee-eee-eeam..."
Her voice was clear and strong as she sang with the band, shutting out the crowd of parents and local luminaries gathered for this anti-drug rally/campaign stop. At that moment, last Friday afternoon in Salinas, it was just Barbara and the band.
In impressive do-wop style, Boxer played off the young singers, "wooo-oo-oooooooo-uh," huddled into a group, the diminutive Democrat pointing to different sections to cue their vocals. It looked almost--dare we say, in this cynical, photo op political era--like she was enjoying herself, savoring a brief respite from a hectic campaign, perhaps the toughest of her long political life.
It wasn''t a scene in which you could easily picture California''s other senator, the more staid, and more centrist, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But then again, despite a shared gender, job and political party, Boxer and Feinstein have few commonalities.
While Feinstein can seriously weigh runs for governor or even president, Barbara Boxer is the perpetually "vulnerable" candidate, as labeled by politicos and pundits. Her liberal leanings on many issues have been considered out-of-step with mainstream California voters ever since "liberal" became a dirty word, thanks to the one-two punch of Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh.
"I''ll tell you, one of the reasons that I''m targeted--and I am the number-one target of the right wing--is because they don''t want me there, and I wear that as a badge of honor," Boxer told Coast Weekly in a private interview following her musical performance.
Yet rather than wearing the badge of liberal crusader, Boxer casts her role as rallying against special interests. "I''ve got the NRA that says they want to, quote, ''take me out.'' I''ve got the Christian Coalition and the anti-choice forces who want me gone. The oil companies and polluters want me out...Anyone who takes on special interests is going to be a target. You''re going to have a hard race."
And a hard race is exactly what Boxer faces against Matt Fong. Six years ago, Boxer barely eked out a victory against Bruce Herschensohn, a right-winger as open to the label of political extremist as Boxer, only on the other end of the political spectrum.
Matt Fong, however, is difficult to tag with the extremist label. Most of his positions are fairly centrist, being a minority should broaden his appeal, and he is even the son of a respected Democrat, longtime California Secretary of State March Fong Eu.
Political analysts, from the Sacramento Bee down to the L.A. Times, say Fong''s campaign will be heavily financed by the GOP''s national money machine, and much of the message will try to label Boxer a wild-eyed liberal, a label she shuns.
"I don''t look at who I am in terms of liberal or conservative. I don''t look at myself that way. I look at myself as a fighter for the people, and sometimes that leads me to cast what''s considered a liberal vote, like pro-choice, and sometimes it leads me to cast a conservative vote, which might be tough on crime, which I am. So, it doesn''t bother me. People can call me whatever they want, I don''t care, and I don''t think the people care," she says.
Indeed, her tough law-and-order stands since she jumped to the Senate, after a 10-year stint in the House of Representatives, have at times put her at odds with liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, even as liberals support her in other areas.
Boxer''s voting record gets generally high marks from traditional liberal constituencies, such as labor, pro-choice groups, educators, environmentalists, anti-poverty groups, consumer advocates, women''s issues, gun control advocates, and various organizations advocating left-of-center social policies.
According to performance evaluations of interest groups compiled by the non-partisan Project Vote Smart, Boxer was given near-perfect voting records by groups in all these categories, and scored higher than Feinstein with most, especially on labor and social justice issues.
But she also has a strong record of voting with President Clinton''s centrist stands, and not just because he''s family (Boxer''s daughter is married to Hillary Rodham Clinton''s brother).
"I have one of the highest voting records with the president. It means I agree with him on most things," says Boxer. "I think he''s right on education, I think he''s right on choice, I think he''s right on the environment. And I parted with him on NAFTA and a few other issues. Most issues, I think he''s right."
She also parted from Clinton on the 1996 welfare reform package. Boxer favored the welfare reform bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Daschle which she said was easier on kids. Boxer said it''s still an open question whether Clinton''s downsizing of our social safety net will hurt our country''s most vulnerable citizens.
"I don''t think we can judge this until the next recession, because right now, thank goodness, there are more jobs available. So people are getting jobs and it''s wonderful. Also, people aren''t getting thrown off yet, because they haven''t been on welfare for five years yet. I think that will be the day that we know if people are doing alright, when it''s a recession and the children are OK, and people aren''t homeless, and so on. But I worry about it, because I think we could have made it much better," Boxer says.
If the welfare changes are damaging, she said changes could be made, depending on who is in Washington D.C.
"We can respond, it''s just going to take a change in the law. I think we''ve proven we can respond to most crises. It''s just a question of if there''s the will, and that depends on who''s in the Congress."
Who''s in Congress? This campaign will be about more than Boxer''s and Fong''s stands on the issues. Many observers say it will be a referendum on Boxer herself, and whether she is still what Californians want.
"The Republican challenger, Matt Fong, is not a very dynamic campaigner. But given her record and her evident unpopularity, the issue will be Boxer, not Fong, unless he completely self-destructs," political columnist Dan Walters wrote recently.
Boxer doesn''t mind that focus. She is planning to start running television spots to get her message out, and confident that being an incumbent today is easier than being an incumbent in 1992.
"The last electorate was very unhappy. Eighty percent said we were on the wrong track, now more than 50 percent think we''re on the right track," Boxer says. "I think it bodes well for me because I''ve been there for six years."
Actually, Boxer has been in Congress since 1982, and has been through good times and bad, more liberal voting trends and more conservative, a record that will likely be carefully probed by the Fong campaign from now until November. Boxer knows it will be a very tough race.
"My race is going to be [decided by] two-to-five [percentage] points," Boxer says. "I don''t know which side I''ll be on. I obviously hope I''ll be on the right side. And if I do everything right..." her voice trailing off.
Boxer says she still has the passion and drive she radiated six years ago, even if there is a weariness to her voice and expression that wasn''t there before. Maybe it was the long day, or the long days to come. Or maybe it was just all that singing: "Dream, dream, dree-eam; dree-eee-eee-eee-eeam..." cw