Yamato Damashi for ‘California’s IRS’

Los Angeles, Calif. (June 4) — The Japanese phrase "yamato damashi" is translated in English as "unconquerable will." In a sense, the phrase characterized the woman I was having breakfast with at the Beverly Hills Hotel two days before the California primary.

Born in Korea and raised in Japan, Michelle Park Steel majored in business administration at Pepperdine University, has served on the Los Angeles Fire Commission and Airport Commission, and been a vigorous leader in the local Asian-American community. In the June 6 election, she was seeking the Republican nomination for the state Board of Equalization in District Three (Southern California). The board is the largest elected tax body in the nation and, as Steel herself put it, "California’s IRS."

"But more than any credential I have, I also have an experience I can’t forget," Steel told me. She then recalled how her mother, after mastering English and opening a sandwich shop in downtown Los Angeles, was charged with a violation of tax laws. "She didn’t know to fight government or make her case, which the Board [of Equalization] would have decided. So she paid the penalty and interest without a fight. More than anything in my life, that incident gave me passion for the taxpayers and to help people out."

Two days after we had breakfast, first-time candidate Steel, wife of former State Republican Chairman Shawn Steel and mother of two daughters, won the hotly fought, five-candidate Republican primary for the board. Her leading opponent was state legislator Ray Haynes of Riverside, also a conservative and a longtime leader in the conservative California Republican Assembly. However, Steel also had endorsements from 11 of Haynes’ GOP colleagues in the state assembly and from two of the most respected conservatives in the Golden State: 1992 U.S. Senate nominee Bruce Herschensohn and 2002 gubernatorial nominee William Simon, Jr. Even national Republican leaders such as Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.), head of the House Republican Study Committee, weighed in for Steel before the primary.

Should Michelle Park Steel emerge triumphant in the fall (in a district where 45% of registered voters are Republicans and 30% are Democrats), she will be the highest-elected Asian-American woman in the nation.

The Board of Equalization has taken on particular significance since the 1978 enactment of the statewide tax ceiling known as Proposition 13. Under a little-noticed provision of Proposition 13, the board acquired direct power over the rates charged by oil and utility companies. Steel and the other candidates for the board will come under unusual scrutiny this fall, as voters will decide on a Democrat-backed statewide initiative that would raise taxes on oil. Steel, who campaigned on a no-new-tax pledge, is opposed to the tax because she feels it is "a guaranteed means of raising the cost of fuel at the pump — something Californians definitely don’t need."

When someone in the audience asked Steel about the slight accent that has remained with her since she came to the U.S. as a teenager, she quipped, "Yes, I have an accent, but it’s not as bad as [California Republican Gov.] Arnold Schwarzenegger’s — and look where he is!"

DINO (Democrat in Name Only) in Virginia

Most national Democratic leaders clearly hoped for the nomination of Jim Webb, much-decorated Vietnam War hero and Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the navy, as their party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, Democrats in the Old Dominion State had other ideas. Last week, by 53% to 47% of the vote, Webb defeated Harris Miller, former high-tech lobbyist and decidedly left-of-center Democrat, for nomination against Republican Sen. George Allen this fall.

U.S. Naval Academy graduate and best-selling novelist Webb made headlines last year with several hard-hitting articles blasting George W. Bush (whom he voted and campaigned for in 2000) for his handling of the U.S. mission in Iraq and calling for an exit strategy for U.S. troops. Many of the same Virginia bloggers who backed Howard Dean for President in ’04 launched a cyberspace boomlet calling on the 60-year-old Webb to "switch and fight" as a candidate against Allen. Webb finally agreed, declared himself a Democrat (Virginia has no party registration), and announced for the Senate.

Former (1988-2000) Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (D.) became national finance chairman for old Vietnam comrade-in-arms Webb and such Democratic powerhouses as 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and National Democratic Senatorial Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) weighed in for the former Reagan Administration official. David "Mudcat" Saunders, architect of former (2001-05) Democratic Gov. Mark Warner’s election triumph five years ago, became Webb’s top strategist and likened the author-candidate to the racehorse Secretariat.

Webb claimed he left the Republican Party because of his distaste for its growing conservatism on social issues and that he supported gays in the military. Along with Ronald Reagan, he voted for Bush and Allen himself (when Allen successfully challenged Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb in 2000). Though he proved victorious, Webb was repeatedly forced to play defense against self-styled "diehard Democrat" and former Fairfax County (Va.) Democratic Chairman Miller.

Webb had also once called Bill Clinton’s administration "the most corrupt in history" and had written an article blasting women in command positions in the military — which drew strong fire from retired Gen. Claudia Kennedy, formerly the highest-ranked woman in uniform and now a strong Miller backer.

Miller spent more than $1 million, much of it his own wealth — more than three times as much as Webb.

Other Results

South Carolina’s "Second Story:" The most-watched primary in South Carolina last week was the Republican nomination fight for lieutenant governor. With Republican Gov. Mark Sanford easily renominated (and a strong favorite for re-election over Democratic State Sen. Tommy Moore). GOPers were treated to a rock ’em, sock ’em primary between businessman Mike Campbell, son of the late Gov. (1986-94) Carroll Campbell, and incumbent Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.

In a sense, their contest was a replay of the bitter, still-vivid presidential primary of 2000 in which Campbell was a Bushman and Bauer a vigorous backer of John McCain. Campbell led Bauer 45% to 36%, but because neither won a majority, they will meet again in a run-off next month.

The remainder of the votes went to physician Henry Jordan, who had waged losing campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and Congress in ’88. Although both Campbell and Bauer styled themselves conservatives, Jordan was the lone candidate to support Sanford’s proposal for statewide school vouchers.

"Maine-Stream" Republicans: In a state where Republicans traditionally nominate moderate candidates for statewide office, conservative State Rep. Chandler Woodcock was the surprise winner of the GOP primary for governor of Maine last week. Woodcock, who promised to restore trust and fiscal responsibility, won 40% of the vote over veteran state legislator Peter Mills and former Rep. (1974-82) and 1982 Senate nominee David Emery, both well-known moderates. Woodcock now faces Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.


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