In an uphill battle, the House impeachment manager courts his constituents
Oct 9, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 04 • By MATTHEW REES
Ever wonder what happened to impeachment as a political issue? Following the Senate trial, Democrats gloated that a number of House managers would pay the ultimate price in the 2000 elections. But it hasn't worked out that way. Steve Chabot of Ohio has a 26-year-old pipsqueak of a challenger fresh out of law school. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas has no opponent at all. And Bill McCollum of Florida just may be elected to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Connie Mack, who's not seeking reelection.
And then there's James Rogan, whose commanding performance in the Senate trial led him to be targeted for defeat by the likes of Barbara Boxer, David Geffen, and President Clinton. In the immediate aftermath of the trial, the second-term congressman was widely written off, given his district's Democratic leanings. A poll showed he had the support of just 25 percent of the electorate, and a local state senator, Adam Schiff, announced plans to run against him.
So you might think the race to see who will represent the suburban Los Angeles district boils down to a referendum on whether impeachment was the proper response to the president's peccadilloes. Instead, the one issue that stands out here from all the others is . . . Armenia. Specifically, the candidates have been tangling over which of them is the better friend of Armenian Americans, who make up 15 percent of the electorate, a higher share than in any other district in the country. As for impeachment, both candidates discuss it if asked, but neither says much about it in his stump speech. When Rogan and Schiff squared off for the first time, on September 15, the subject never came up.
But if a fairly conventional mix of local and national issues -- education, transportation -- dominates the discourse, impeachment is affecting the race on another front: money. Rogan is expected to raise and spend $ 6 million, Schiff $ 5 million, making this the highest-spending House race in U.S. history, and that's entirely because of the passions surrounding impeachment.
Rogan's donor list has grown from 3,000 names to 50,000, spanning 46 states, and he's held fund-raisers in places as remote as Nebraska. As for Schiff, he's benefited from direct-mail pieces signed by Hollywood liberals like Norman Lear, and has enjoyed the attention of California's Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and his campaign staff. Most notable of all, Clinton went out of his way to host a fund-raiser for Schiff on June 27.
And how are the candidates spending all this money? They're advertising in the Armenian media, of course. The district is home to seven Armenian newspapers -- two of them dailies -- and three Armenian cable television stations. In a recent campaign mailing, Schiff zinged the incumbent not for his role in the prosecution of Clinton but for his supposedly spotty record on Armenian issues. And Schiff's campaign has helped publicize a left-wing Armenian group's charge that Rogan failed to sign a congressional letter opposing the sale of military helicopters to Turkey.
As for Rogan, he touts his endorsements from Armenian-American politicians like George Deukmejian, a former governor of California, and his support for providing humanitarian assistance to Armenians living in Nagorno Karabagh. And on a recent Sunday afternoon, he attended a festival here celebrating Armenian independence. In his speech, he shouted "Getzeh hayeruh!" -- "Long live Armenians!" -- and limited his remarks to a single subject: securing passage of a congressional resolution recognizing the "Armenian genocide . . . carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923."
Rogan's vigilance on Armenian issues -- the only time he's traveled outside the United States was to Armenia, last year -- may bring him victory this November. But for the time being he's the underdog. "Demography, more than impeachment, is Rogan's problem," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based GOP consultant.
Indeed, in 1993, 44 percent of the district's voters were registered Republicans, and 43 percent were Democrats. Today, 44 percent are Democrats and just 37 percent are Republicans. Clinton won the district by 8 points four years ago, while Davis, the governor, won it by 17 points two years ago. Normally Rogan could take solace from his two previous victories over Schiff in state Assembly elections, but since then the face of his district has changed. "If any Republican can win this seat," says Hoffenblum, "it's Rogan, but it won't be easy."
Rogan cheerfully acknowledges his uphill struggle. "The race is neck-and-neck," he says, "and I feel great about that." Rogan's standing has improved dramatically since the days just after impeachment. In March, when he and Schiff were on the ballot together in California's open primary, he received 47.3 percent of the total vote. And though Schiff finished with one percent more, Rogan was in clear striking distance.
But complicating Rogan's task is his opponent's veneer of moderation. A 41-year-old former prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office and a self-proclaimed New Democrat, Schiff was elected to the state Senate in 1996.
He claims to have carved out a record of "bipartisan workmanship," sponsoring bills that a Republican governor, Pete Wilson, signed. And during a recent candidates' forum, held at Pasadena City College, Schiff issued a self-serving plea for more civil politics: "We cannot continue to put people in Congress who believe that political courage simply consists of most belligerently attacking the other side."
This is a backdoor way of criticizing Rogan, whom he described to me as "among the most bitterly partisan members of Congress." He says he's less offended by Rogan's role in impeaching and prosecuting the president than he is by the congressman's "contempt" for those who disagree with him. Schiff has not, however, echoed the liberal line that Clinton's actions were purely private and didn't merit public scrutiny: "He should have been censured in the very strongest terms."
Rogan, though doing little to advertise his impeachment activities, has no regrets about his involvement. "I am more proud to have been a House manager," he told me, "than of anything I have ever done professionally in my life." As for his thoughts about Schiff, he doesn't mince words: "a less than mediocre state senator," "the teachers' union's biggest shill," and a "weasel mouth." What's more, says Rogan, "he portrays me as hating children, seniors, the world, and everything that's good and decent in America."
Rogan, 43, does not, however, fit the conservative stereotype. His parents, a cocktail waitress and a bartender, never married, and he didn't meet his father until he was in his twenties. His grandparents reared him in San Francisco's hardscrabble Mission district, and when they died his great aunt was given custody. She too died before long, at which point he lived with his mother, who was in and out of jail for welfare and credit-card fraud, and his alcoholic stepfather.
By the time he was 16, he'd dropped out of school and was supporting his siblings working in a pizza parlor and selling vacuum cleaners. He eventually earned a high-school equivalency degree, studied at a Bay Area community college, and then graduated from the University of California-Berkeley and UCLA law school. He was a Democrat until 1988, but left the party because of its "bizarre programs offering nostrums to every element in our society except the element of reason."
This forthright manner, on display during the impeachment battle, is one reason Democrats like Garry South, Governor Davis's ace political strategist, describe Rogan as "toast." (George W. Bush's poor standing in California is another.) If that's the price of his plain speaking, Rogan says, so be it: "I'm prepared to lose my reelection, if the cost of being reelected is doing something I believe is wrong."