Declaring war on the war on drugs

Republican Rep. Tom Campbell takes on Sen. Dianne Feinstein by attacking U.S. drug policy. Sure, it's California -- but does he have a chance?



Anthony York
September 18, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Only eight weeks before the election, trailing 17 points behind Dianne Feinstein in the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Tom Campbell has taken a radical turn and become a one-note songbird crusading against the federal government's war on drugs. He is aggressively championing a ballot measure in California that would place nonviolent drug offenders in rehabilitation programs instead of jails or prisons.

It's clear that Campbell is using his war on the war on drugs to attract reporters hungry for a good story. And it has earned him more media attention than a candidate trailing by so much in the polls might hope for. Campbell and his advisors understand what makes a good story, and are doing everything they can to seduce the press on their shoestring budget. Campbell's campaign spokesman Sean Walsh calls the congressman's long-shot bid a "rage against the machine." One California Republican said a Campbell victory would take "an act of God."

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But is harping on the drug war really a winning issue in law-and-order obsessed California? Campbell has hitched his political fate to a ballot measure -- Proposition 36 -- that would divert nonviolent drug offenders into drug treatment centers rather than into California' overcrowded prisons and jails. If it's to be successful, the issue will have to resonate with voters in a way nobody ever would have expected.

The immediate results of early polling on Prop. 36 are positive, showing it with an early lead. But many believe that will disappear once the campaign is joined in earnest. "The numbers were 55-27 in favor, but awareness was only 13 percent," said Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll. "The public is reacting to it in a very broad-brush way. It sounds like a good idea. The history of propositions would show that usually you have to start out ahead to have any chance of passage on election day. But only about half of those that start out ahead ultimately get passed. As awareness grows, it's literally a tossup."

"I'm a pragmatist," Campbell says. "I look at a system now that is clearly broken, clearly a failure, and I'm prepared to try alternative routes to solving this problem." He has said the drug war is tantamount to the Jim Crow laws of the Reconstruction-era South because of its disproportionate effect on African-Americans. And he has called unjust and dangerous President Clinton's decision to ram through Congress a new $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia for its own war on drugs. Campbell likes to compare the Colombia aid package to a Vietnam-style intervention.

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But the initiative has some powerful enemies. Law enforcement agencies are tripping over themselves in an effort to come out against the initiative. The "No" campaign is being run by a Republican consulting firm whose main client, the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, has come down firmly against the measure. Even the liberal actor Martin Sheen, who plays the president on television's "The West Wing," came out against the initiative last month.

Feinstein, meanwhile, has expressed "grave reservations" about Prop. 36, according to campaign manager Kam Kuwata, though she has not taken a formal position on the measure. In fact, to the extent that Feinstein will engage Campbell at all, Kuwata hopes it will be on the senator's terms, not Campbell's.

But that has done little to stop Campbell. Not only does he believe strongly in the issue, he understands he has nothing to lose by making it the focal point of his campaign. It is a message Campbell brought to the "Shadow Convention" in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer, just one of the places Republicans typically dare not tread, but that Campbell is depending on to try to form a political base. "I've seen polling from a number of different sources on the issue," said Dan Schnur, former communications director for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign and a Campbell advisor.

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"I've been struck by how receptive Californians are to the idea of treatment instead of mandatory prison time for nonviolent offenders."

Clearly, Campbell is not doing as well in the polls as the initiative he supports. While that gap with Feinstein narrowed from 26 points earlier this summer, it is still a daunting hurdle to overcome. Campbell is also trailing badly in the fundraising race. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports from the Center for Responsive politics, Feinstein has more than $3.1 million in the bank to Campbell's $1.1 million.

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Arianna Huffington, the mind behind the anti-government-as-usual Shadow Conventions (and a frequent Salon contributor), has written a pair of flattering columns about Campbell's stand on the drug war. "He has leadership qualities that are so rare in a profession full of lemmings," Huffington says of Campbell. But the former Republican turned populist admits Campbell's candidacy may be a long shot. "His strategy would have to be appealing to nonvoters," she says. "If he can mobilize a piece of that majority who won't even be voting on election day, then he has a chance." (Of course, Huffington played a significant role last time Feinstein ran for reelection. In 1994, her then-husband Michael Huffington, a political unknown, spent $30 million and came within a whisker of knocking Feinstein out. Comparing the two campaigns, Huffington laughed: "This campaign doesn't have as much money.")

So Campbell is trying to piggyback on Prop 36, sponsored by the California Campaign for New Drug Policies, the same group that sponsored medical marijuana initiatives in California and around the country. The initiative is being bankrolled by the Soros Foundation, along with Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer.

"There's strong sentiment that we're turning people into criminals by putting them into prison," said CCNDP manager Dave Fratello. "I believe you're going to see a discussion on people reevaluating what defines criminal behavior."

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Fratello said his group has embarked on a nationwide crusade to change the nation's drug laws. A similar measure will be on the ballot in Massachusetts this fall, and other sentencing reform initiatives will appear in Utah and Oregon.

"I think there's dissatisfaction with the drug war," Fratello said. "All of our tough-on-crime measures have swelled the prison population, yet we haven't done anything to help nonviolent drug users who keep coming in by the thousands. That means less room for violent offenders and a consequent orgy of prison building.

"The failures of those policies are palpable for a lot of people," Fratello said. But he rejected the notion that Proposition 36 was soft on crime. "We're not going in a softer direction toward drugs -- that's important. Drug treatment is tougher on crime than jail is. This actually deals with the root cause of so much crime by individuals. Rehabilitation can make people into taxpaying productive citizens rather than a drain on society."

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Opponents of the initiative disagree. In a written statement announcing his role as honorary co-chairman of the "No on 36" campaign, Sheen (whose son Charlie has wrestled with substance abuse) wrote: "I've seen how devastating drug addiction can be. Drug addicts need to be held directly accountable by the court with real sanctions." He said the measure would effectively decriminalize "dangerous and highly addictive drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, PCP and methamphetamine."

Schnur, a veteran of California campaigns, knows that Campbell's views will be a tough sell. Throughout the 1990s, the trend in California has been one of stricter penalties for criminals of all kinds. The state Legislature has passed a slew of tougher sentencing laws including minimum sentences for using a gun during a crime and additional penalties for drive-by shootings or shooting police officers. In 1994, voters approved a "three strikes" measure at the ballot box, giving mandatory 25 years to life sentences for third-time felons. Attempts to amend the law to only cover violent felonies have routinely been shot down. And just this March, voters approved Proposition 21, an overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system that subjects teenage criminals to stiffer penalties and allows prosecutors to decide whether youths as young as 14 should be tried as adults.

But Campbell believes the same schizophrenia that generally applies to California politics can apply to the crime issue. "Remember, this is the state of Gov. Ronald Reagan and Gov. Jerry Brown," he says. "And they were elected one after the other."

Schnur says that Campbell's message is consistent, even if it is more complicated than the typical political sales pitch. "If you take the time to think it through, the voters' opinion on this issue is entirely consistent. They want to punish the criminal element who deserve punishment and they want to punish them to the fullest extent of the law and then some," Schnur says. "On the other hand, they want to help those who are in need of help. Voters draw a distinction between the 19-year-old caught with a gram of pot in her jacket pocket and a pusher who selling crystal meth to children."

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If Campbell fails, his advisors say, it may just be because he is, politically speaking, slightly ahead of his time. "Over the next two months you will see a more reasoned and nuanced discussion of this issue than you've seen anywhere in America to this point," Schnur says. "Until this point, the political dialogue has always treated these two people in precisely the same way."

But some of Campbell's problems are of his own making. While he positions himself as a Silicon Valley libertarian, he has irked many high tech executives in the valley on a number of different issues. From his unwillingess to sign off on a bill for uniform national standards for class action law suits in federal courts -- a key issue for Silicon Valley businesses -- to his navel gazing on permanent normalized trade relations with China, which he eventually supported.

Campbell has vacillated on some key issues for Silicon Valley execs.

That has dried up a lot of the money for Campbell in the valley. Feinstein's campaign happily points out that Cisco Systems, led by CEO John Chambers -- a strong Bush booster -- is a Feinstein contributor, chipping in $16,800 to her campaign as of July.

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"In the past, he has supported Tom Campbell for the House very enthusiastically," said Cisco spokesman Kent Jenkins. "John was just in the uncomfortable position of choosing between two capable folks."

But one Washington-based high tech source added Campbell was not considered a go-to guy on the Hill if high tech needed something done. "Tom is a really, really, really smart guy," the source said. "Tom's approach is always rigorous and intellectually honest. Whether it always recognizes legislative reality a lot of the times is another matter."

Also, oddly, Feinstein, the Democrat, has locked up most of the key law and order endorsements in the state, while the Republican is the under-funded intellectual running as a populist. Feinstein has an impressive list of Republicans and traditionally conservative groups that are supporting her campaign, but Campbell is hoping to cash in on some bipartisan appeal. The campaign is scheduled to get a boost later this month from San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who is expected to endorse Campbell. Sources close to the campaign say that other Democratic elected officials are being wooed, and may end up endorsing the Republican nominee.

"Is it upside-down? Maybe on some levels because you go to traditionally strong parts of the Republican base like agriculture where we're doing pretty damn well," Kuwata said. "But we're also doing it in traditional Democratic areas."

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Though the race is not one of the key Senate fights this fall, it has attracted its share of national media attention, due mostly to Campbell's allure as a political character. In a recent column, syndicated columnist George Will wrote "were Campbell to enter the Senate as Pat Moynihan leaves it, he would inherit the title as the most interesting mind in the chamber. He could be a broader-gauge John McCain, with more than the one-note radicalism of campaign finance reform."

The same things that have attracted many of the media thinkers to Campbell have alienated some of Campbell's colleagues on the Hill. Many of Campbell's most strident enemies come from his own party. Since winning a largely Democratic congressional seat in a special election in 1995, Campbell has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the Republican leadership. (His congressional district voted for Clinton by 16 and 18 point margins in 1992 and '96 respectively.) It started when he refused to vote for Newt Gingrich's speakership, and continued through this year. With control of the House on the line, and Campbell a popular incumbent in an otherwise Democratic district, House leaders implored Campbell to stay put during this election cycle, much to the delight of Democrats. Campbell won reelection in 1998 by 23 points. Polls now show Democrat Mike Honda leading Republican Jim Cunneen in the race to succeed Campbell.

"I'm sure some of his colleagues are saying, 'If you're going to have a midlife crisis, have it next cycle,'" joked Feinstein campaign consultant Bill Carrick in a conversation with Salon earlier this year.

Instead, the headstrong Campbell dove into the race last October to take on California's senior senator. Speculation as to why he chose this year to run ranged from the pragmatic to the paranoid. One theory holds that Democrats -- who will likely control the state's congressional redistricting process after the new census is released -- will carve up Campbell's district before the 2002 election anyway, making it impossible even for a liberal Republican like Campbell to be elected there. Another holds that Campbell is making a sort of statewide dry run to boost his name recognition so he can take on Gov. Gray Davis in 2002.

Yet another theory maintains that Campbell received an ultimatum from the Stanford Law School, where he is a tenured professor, telling him to return to teaching or risk losing his tenure. Republican sources confirmed Campbell did receive an ultimatum from Stanford. While nobody thinks that was the sole reason for Campbell's decision to take on Feinstein this year, one source says "it certainly was a factor."

Campbell refused to discuss the Stanford question. "I've been very careful to keep my private life private," he said. "Stanford University has been not only fair but generous with me. I have no quarrel with them whatsoever."

Part of the decision seems to be based on the fact that Campbell has always wanted to be a U.S. senator, where his professorial style and political independence may go over better than it does in the raucous lower house. Campbell's pedigree -- a masters in economics from the University of Chicago, president of the Harvard Law Review, professor at Stanford Law -- and his intellectual disdain of the Washington power game, is a combination often found in Democrats, particularly Democrats who have served in the U.S. Senate. ("I cannot see myself trading a vote," he has been quoted as saying.) Some of the same adjectives that are tagged to Democratic senators past and present -- from Moynihan to Bill Bradley to Bob Kerrey -- are often attached to Campbell.

"He is more of a senator by temperament," said one former Republican House official, who also evoked the name of Moynihan in his description of Campbell. "You get the sense that he is unwilling to go along with the way things work a lot of the time."

Feinstein's Kuwata agreed with part of the official's assessment, minus the Moynihan comparison. "I don't think that's fair to Moynihan," Kuwata said, offering a comparison of his own. "Did you ever see the show "Family Ties"? He's kind of Alex P. Keaton. You can picture him in grade school taking an attachi case to his class; he's a bit of a caricature. Don't think he cares that much about getting things done.

But in the wake of John McCain's violent flare of a presidential candidacy, Campbell is doing everything he can to cash in on the labels of "maverick" and "independent" that have often caused him problems among members of the House Republican conference. McCain has already been to California to campaign and raise money for Campbell, and has cut a TV spot that will likely run soon. Campbell said McCain may come back to stump for the congressman, depending on how McCain's recovery from cancer surgery progresses. In the meantime, Campbell is trying to run a McCain-esque campaign, desperately trying to court the media, and running as a nonpartisan political outsider who just happens to be a member of Congress.

Like McCain, Campbell is depending on the media to help introduce him to voters since Campbell cannot afford to get his message out himself.

Campbell openly plays the "what if" game with his political career, pointing out that he would probably already be a U.S. senator if it weren't for the late Sonny Bono. In 1992, Bono, then mayor of Palm Springs, and Campbell faced off in a Republican primary along with conservative Bruce Herschensohn for the right to take on liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer.

"Sonny Bono ran and took 19 percentage points," he recalls. "I lost by a point and a half. And that was in a closed primary." (Herschensohn received 38 percent of the vote to Campbell's 36 percent.) Bono, like Campbell, was pro-choice and generally seen as a moderate. Herschensohn, a strident conservative, went on to narrowly lose to Boxer, 48-43 percent.

In many ways, Campbell is a good fit for California. He is one of the most liberal Republican House members on social issues like abortion and gun control. While he touts his 100 percent pro-choice voting record, he is equally proud of his title as most fiscally conservative member of the House. The National Taxpayers Association has voted Campbell the member least likely to spend taxpayer dollars. The same group voted Feinstein the senator with the most extravagant spending habits.

But with the state in flush economic times, the presidential campaign focused elsewhere, a popular incumbent opponent with high name identification and no money of his own to speak of, Campbell is having a hard time getting his campaign off the ground.

"There is a lot of perception that I need to rebut in order to let people know who I am," he said. "'Republican' almost always signals pro-life. I've always been pro-choice. 'Democrat' or 'Republican' tends to signal 'in the system' and I need to let folks know I don't take PAC money. So it's a function of asking people to find out about me and judge me on my own merits against some perception they may have of me."


Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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