Impeachment: The rematch

As former House manager James Rogan battles for his political life against Democrat Adam Schiff, it's hard not to see them as proxies for Henry Hyde vs. President Clinton.

By Anthony York
October 30, 2000 6:22PM (UTC)
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It's 8 p.m. on a Monday in Rep. James Rogan's campaign headquarters. A young volunteer bounces in her chair, singing along to Snoop Dogg on the radio, telephone in her ear, efficiently working her way through a list of GOP supporters on Rogan's behalf. Meanwhile, the office dog, a boxer/beagle mix named Kingpin, sniffs around for half-eaten sandwiches. In a small back corner office, Rogan, 43, is huddled with his brain trust of Gen Xers -- campaign spokesman Jeff Solzby, campaign manager Jason Roe and chief of staff Dan Pevetto -- shooting the breeze before "the judge," as he is affectionately called, heads back to Washington.

Democrats, of course, don't call Rogan anything affectionately. They'd like to brand the two-term congressman with an "I," for impeachment. Rogan is still best known for his role as a House impeachment manager, one of 13 Republicans, managed by Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, who presided over the seamy and surreal impeachment trial of President Clinton. While most of the other House managers are on track to coast to reelection, Rogan is in the fight of his political life.


Impeachment as a political issue has all but disappeared from America's political radar in this election, with even Al Gore refusing to make the partisan death match of 1998 and 1999 a campaign issue in the year 2000. But here, in California's 27th District, Rogan's battle with Democratic state Sen. Adam Schiff seems the last bloody battle of the impeachment war.

Of the 13 Republican impeachment managers, Rogan may end up paying the highest price for his role. Only Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., faces anything approaching a serious challenge in his reelection bid. Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida is locked in a hotly contested race for the U.S. Senate with Democrat Bill Nelson, and Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., is retiring under self-imposed term limits. The other House managers seem poised to coast to reelection.

Impeachment was supposed to be a political battle fought on many fronts, not just in Rogan's district. Just after the president was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999, one of his advisors told the New York Times that Clinton was out for blood in 2000. "He knows the districts, he knows the candidates, and he doesn't like these people," the advisor said. "He's obviously real hot on the managers. He thinks winning back the House is part of his legacy."


"It will be a personal crusade," another Clinton advisor said. "The man knows he's done wrong, but he also knows they should not have taken it to the extreme they have. He says, 'It's the unfairness of this whole process -- these right-wingers who tried to undo the election.'"

To combat the effort, the managers set up a political action committee to raise money for the embattled managers, but that PAC has fallen apart. As of June, the PAC had only raised $76,000, and had only made one contribution to a candidate -- a $1,000 check to Rogan. The petering out of the PAC is perhaps the best indication of how quickly impeachment has faded from the American political consciousness. The PAC, an online fundraising effort aimed at defeating impeachment managers, has chipped in more than $23,000 to Schiff's election effort, a respectable contribution but a relative drop in the sizable bucket of donations Schiff has collected in this race.

Still, impeachment may yet take its toll on Rogan. A recent Glendale News-Press poll has Schiff up by 6 points, while Rogan's staff say its internal tracking has the Republican incumbent up 5. In the end, this race may depend on presidential coattails, and how voters react to a scheduled California visit by President Clinton.


Even without Rogan's role as an impeachment manager, his reelection battle would have been hard fought. The district, which Rogan has represented since 1996, includes a northern section of Los Angeles County that comprises Glendale, Pasadena and La Caqada. The district has been trending Democratic in recent years. In 1992, Republicans held a 44-to-43 percent advantage, but by September of this year, those numbers had shifted to a 44-to-37 advantage for Democrats. It is one of three or four areas where political control over California is thrashed out year after year. An influx of new voters, many Armenian and Latino, has changed the district over the last decade, turning this once Republican bedrock into a perpetual battleground.

This year, once again, state legislative battles in the area are among the hardest fought and most expensive in the state. In the congressional and legislative races alone, the amount of political money spent in the Glendale/Pasadena area could climb above $15 million.


Most of that money, however, is flowing into the Rogan-Schiff race. Between the two candidates and their surrogates, the two-year lease on the House seat is expected to run more than $10 million, making it the most expensive congressional race in history. Democratic and Republican parties, soft money and so-called "independent" expenditure campaigns are pouring at least an additional $2.2 million into the race.

In 1998, by contrast, Rogan spent just over $1.5 million in his reelection bid against Democrat Barry Gordon, who spent just over $525,000, and Rogan won by 5 points. The national parties are both heavily involved, and traditional partisan front groups including Handgun Control Inc. and the Traditional Values Coalition are heavily invested in the race.

All eyes are on Rogan. As much as he and Schiff talk about Social Security, education and prescription drugs, the race is a referendum on the former impeachment manager. He can no less escape association with Clinton than Monica Lewinsky or Al Gore can. And to his credit, Rogan hasn't even tried.


Rogan knows that the most important Democrat in this race is Clinton, not Schiff. "Did David Geffen and Barbra Streisand say to themselves, 'Oh, my God, it's Adam Schiff. We must elevate him!'?" he asks rhetorically. "No. If they had run the town drunk against me, Zoot Fenster, he'd have 30,000 donors and Barbara Streisand would be doing fundraisers for him in her backyard. This isn't about Schiff. Their thirst for blood is because of my role as a House manager."

He says he takes it all in stride. "I don't resent them for it. It's the cost of doing business. When you take on an unpopular cause against the most powerful man on the face of the Earth, you better be prepared to make some enemies; I understand that. But I also never flinch."

If you didn't know that he played a starring role in Washington's most rancorous partisan battle of our time, you'd think Jim Rogan was a coalition builder. He is affable and speaks with a level of candor that reveals a greater self-confidence. While he can be scripted on the stump, in more casual settings he seems to open up. He is the kind of candidate reporters like, one who gives good quotes, isn't afraid to pepper his speech with a four-letter word or two and for the most part steers away from platitudes and political clichés. The former Democrat still counts Democrats among his personal friends.


Rogan was raised in San Francisco's Mission District, a largely working-class Irish and Latino area that is not exactly a petri dish for conservative Republicans. While it is now at the heart of San Francisco's gentrification, the Mission District where Rogan grew up was a far cry from La Caqada.

"I was raised by my grandfather," who worked on the docks in San Francisco. "Everybody in my family, they were all union Democrats," Rogan says in an interview between campaign stops. "They all came through the Depression. After my grandparents died, I lived with my great aunt for a while. She was on Social Security and disabled. She lived on $103 per month. I finally went to live with my mom who in very short order was a single mom on welfare and food stamps with four kids. I dropped out of high school and went to work. I took every crummy job that was out there that a kid could find, trying to make ends meet."

Rogan eventually became active in local Democratic politics, landing a seat on the state party's Central Committee and befriending a number of people who would become powerful San Francisco political institutions, including current Mayor Willie Brown and John Burton, the liberal, foul-mouthed former congressman and current head of the state Senate.

"Johnny Burton grew up with my biological father, who got my mom pregnant and abandoned her. They were kids together and played basketball together," he says. "My mom, she was a cocktail waitress and got pregnant from one of the bartenders that worked there. There were two bartenders that worked there, my dad and John Burton."


By 1994, Rogan had become a Republican and served alongside Burton in the Legislature. "I went up to Burton one time, we actually drove over one night after session and had dinner with my father and his wife. And we were driving back, and Burton was always giving me a bad time about being a conservative, and I said, 'So Johnny, you think I look like the old man?' And he started cursing at me. 'You don't look anything like him.' And I said, 'Yeah, that's the problem, I don't think I do either. But a lot of people tell me I look a lot like you.'

"And just for a heartbeat, I saw John Burton's face just turn ashen, his jaw kind of dropped and you could see him in that moment going back through every woman he ever had sex with and whether my mother, in that time and place, whether she came up on the Rolodex. And he said, 'Ah, no! No!' and just started swearing at me. You could see it in his eyes, 'Oh my God, could I have produced this right-wing kook?'"

Rogan said the experience of growing up poor led to his eventual political conversion. As he looked around at the people he grew up with still on welfare, he started to crusade against it. "I was at a state Central Committee meeting, and I was railing about this. Why are we protecting policies that keep people trapped on welfare? Why are we doing nothing to liberate them from dependency on government so that they can make their own way and become successful? I had done it. I knew it worked. People in my family still hadn't done it and live like bums to this day."

On the issue of welfare, Rogan's rhetoric is as strident as that of any conservative Republican. He accuses Democrats of wanting to keep people dependent on welfare so that Democrats in turn could depend on their votes in November. While Democratic defense of welfare soured Rogan on the party, the congressman said the final straw came in the 1980s after he moved to Los Angeles and became a member of the Los Angeles County Central Committee. The committee was discussing the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. "There was a vote to deny Bork's nomination, and I was the one dissenting vote. The press release from the Central Committee the next day said it was unanimous; they didn't even record my vote. Finally a committee of them came up to me and said, 'You really shouldn't be here.' And I finally resigned, and I changed parties."


Rogan now considers his resignation as a kind of political liberation. "I hadn't been true to myself, I had been voting Republican for a long time," he says. "Ronald Reagan had a lot to do with my conversion. When I was a kid we all laughed at Ronald Reagan, but when he became president I started listening to him. It just dawned on me at some point that Reagan was right and I was wrong."

These two stories about Burton and Rogan's political conversion taken together illuminate the contradiction that is Jim Rogan. On the one hand he's an affable former Democrat who enjoys close personal friendships with members of his former party, and on the other hand he's an aggressively conservative Republican and the top lieutenant in the nastiest partisan battle in a generation -- the impeachment of President Clinton.

Impeachment changed Rogan's life forever. It made him one of the party's chief fundraisers, for one thing. And in California, a state without many bright Republican lights, Rogan quickly rose to the top of a list of potential challengers to Sen. Dianne Feinstein. He seemed poised to make the run until his two young daughters were diagnosed with epilepsy. He opted to run for reelection instead. It seemed a safer bet, but it hasn't turned out that way.

Like many Los Angeles districts, Rogan's 27th is a jumble of freeway numbers: 210, 5, 134, 2, 110. The southern parts, stretching out of the shadows of downtown Los Angeles, are the Democratic base. As you head north over the Verdugo Hills or out to the San Gabriel Mountains, which form the district's eastern border, the population thins out. Take Highway 2 out of multiethnic Glendale, which is the true battleground part of the district along with Burbank, and the population gets noticeably whiter. Mountains dominate the landscape and the horizon; palm trees disappear from view, as do lawn signs for Democratic candidates. This half of the district, the Cresenta Valley, is Republican territory, and it is here where a high voter turnout will be essential if Rogan has any hopes of holding on to his seat.


The demographic shift in the district has also reflected the economic transformation of the area over the last 10 years. Once it was a bastion of defense industry contractors like Jet Propulsion Laboratories and General Dynamics, but the entertainment industry is now the chief economic engine of the district. DreamWorks, Warner Brothers, NBC, Disney and Nickelodeon all have studios in the 27th District. That explosion of the entertainment industry has brought a more liberal crowd to the area, particularly in the cities of Burbank, Pasadena and South Pasadena.

Republicans have tried to combat Democratic gains with a large grass-roots organization this year. Rogan campaign manager Jason Roe says the Republican Effort at Party Participation, known as REAPP, sent bounty hunters into the district to register Republican voters, counteracting the voter registration drives unions have conducted on behalf of Democrats. Offering more than $10 a head, the group dumped $300,000 in the process of registering 17,000 Republicans in the 27th District alone since November 1998. But those numbers are not reflected in the most recent figures from the secretary of state's office, which show only a small GOP uptick of 500 voters in the district since 1998. Democratic registration numbers increased by more than 4,000 voters in that same period.

There is no doubt the Democrats feel they have their perfect candidate at the perfect time in the perfect place in Adam Schiff. The district has been trending Democratic, and though he is a tenacious campaigner, Schiff has a reputation as a solid moderate -- a former prosecutor who has represented the congressional district in its entirety, holding its state Senate seat, since 1996.

In his four years in the Legislature, Schiff has never been viewed as a standout, but has always been judged immensely competent. Thanks in part to legislative term limits, he quickly rose through the ranks of the state Senate, where he now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cherubic and stolid, Schiff did not introduce many of the silly bills that get a lot of press attention around the Capitol, nor did he become closely associated with any one major legislative project. But he proved himself as an able operator, holding hearings on how the state should use its windfall from the tobacco settlement and pushing for water quality controls.

Viewed as evenhanded, he has cast votes irking members of his own party as often as he has the Republicans. But the partisan rancor born of impeachment has polarized this race, and Schiff has not been shy about cashing in. On the trail, attacks between the two candidates come fast and furious, and like Rogan, Schiff has used impeachment as a fundraising tool. During a recent Washington event, President Clinton helped rake in $225,000 for Schiff in a single night.

Clinton isn't the only Democrat who is personally vested in this race. Schiff also has a personal stake in bumping off Rogan. When reminded that Rogan and Schiff have gone head to head before, Rogan lets a mischievous smile run across his face. "Twice," he says. "I beat him twice."

That was in 1994 in two runs for the Assembly. By then, Rogan was a judge, appointed to the bench by Gov. George Deukmejian after serving as a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

"I think from his side, he feels he's got something to prove because I beat him twice," Rogan says. "I've known Adam Schiff for six or seven years. I actually, when I'm not running against him, I like him. We've always had a cordial relationship. The problem with Adam Schiff, when you run against him, he becomes this Jekyll and Hyde creature. I like the Dr. Jekyll aspect of Adam when he's not a candidate, but when he runs for office, he's Mr. Hyde. He lies about your record constantly, he throws as much mud as he can.

"When I first ran against him, I thought, 'We're both ex-prosecutors, this is going to be an elevated campaign.' Prosecutors are by nature people that are supposed to strike hard blows but fair blows. There's an ethical obligation to present your case to the jury fairly and honorably. And Schiff doesn't play by those rules in politics. They've been pounding on me now for seven months, saying things that just aren't true -- that they know aren't true."

Rogan claims Schiff has distorted his record on everything from guns to healthcare, but Schiff stands by his attacks. He countercharges that Rogan has distorted his record on a number of issues. One Rogan mailer included a charge that "Adam Schiff voted to sell confidential DMV records even though the District Attorney's office warned that it could 'put the lives of stalking victims in California at greater risk of injury or death.'"

"There's a lot of distortion in this campaign by their side," Schiff said.

In the course of the $10 million bonanza, there have been countless hit pieces. Last weekend, Traditional Values Coalition chairman Lou Sheldon organized a mailer to the district's large, fairly conservative Armenian community blasting Schiff on the issue of homosexual rights. The mailer was vintage Sheldon. Calling Schiff a "champion of the homosexual agenda," the mailer asks "Does Adam Schiff represent your Christian values?" Schiff, who is Jewish, says it was a veiled anti-Semitic swipe.

Rogan says he would not have put out the mailer himself, but he did not back away from it either. He rejected the notion that it was anti-Semitic, saying Schiff was trying to create a campaign issue where there is none. Rogan spokesman Jeff Solzby called Schiff's attacks on the mailer "hysterical."

Schiff himself shies away from using the i-word on the stump. Instead he speaks in euphemisms, calling impeachment an "ideological partisan crusade" in an effort to make bipartisanship a theme of his campaign. While stumping at a recent local event, he told a voter he would be able to "work in a bipartisan way and better reflect the views of the community" than Rogan.

Schiff says Rogan is out of step with the district in general, focusing on issues like abortion, gun control and prescription drugs. Raising the specter of impeachment, however gently, helps Schiff remind voters that Rogan is a partisan warrior. Schiff says Rogan will be able to "blame it on impeachment" if Schiff prevails on Election Day, but says that really has little to do with this race. "Jim Rogan was in trouble in this district long before impeachment," he said.

Rogan himself has tackled impeachment head-on. He said it comes up at every campaign appearance. In fact, the one point where the candid Rogan seems to click into autopilot is on the issue of impeachment. He's given the speech so many times before. The shadow of impeachment follows him everywhere in this district, and Rogan's lines are well-rehearsed, if sincere.

He said he did not know he would be one of the 13 House managers until the night before the impeachment vote in the House. "Henry Hyde never came up to me and asked me if I wanted to do it. I did not know until 8 to 12 hours before the impeachment vote that I was going to be a manager."

"At the end of session, on the eve of impeachment, my staff had been asking me for days if I had heard anything from Henry. I kept saying no, no, and the press kept hounding me. They didn't believe me. I went back to my office late that night and there was a manila envelope waiting for me from Henry Hyde. And I opened it up and there was a booklet with a little letter paper clipped to the booklet. The letter said something along the lines of: 'Dear Jim. Enclosed please find a copy of the United States Senate rules respecting impeachment proceedings. Familiarize yourself with it at your earliest opportunity. Sincerely, Henry J. Hyde.'"

But if Rogan-Schiff began as a proxy for Henry Hyde vs. President Clinton, it has now become the setting for a bitter battle between House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt over which party controls the House of Representatives.

And yet Rogan's fate may continue to be tied to President Clinton. The popular incumbent is set to visit California later this week, in a last-ditch effort to rally the Democratic base and shore up Gore's sagging poll numbers. Democrats say it could help turn the tide in close congressional races, including Rogan-Schiff, but so far Clinton has no plans to appear in the still fairly conservative 27th District. But his visit could well lift all California Democrats, including Schiff.

Rogan campaign manager Roe insists he's not afraid of a Gore surge, because voters in the district are inclined to split their ticket anyway. "There were a lot of Rogan/Boxer voters in the last election," Roe said, referring to liberal Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. "I know it sounds strange, but a Gore bounce in California probably helps us."

Rogan himself insists that even if impeachment costs him his House seat, he's proud of what he did.

"You reporters have been watching me for the last two years waiting for me to do some big apologia on impeachment. I will tell you on the eve of this election what I've been telling reporters for two years: In a district where impeachment was horribly unpopular, I am more proud to have served with Henry Hyde and the men and women on the House Judiciary Committee in our defense of the Constitution and the rule of law than anything I have ever done professionally in my entire life, and probably ever will do professionally.

"I had to decide whether to cast a vote that I believed was right, but probably would cost me my seat. And I cast the vote I believed was right."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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