Earlier this year, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was denied renomination to the Diet (parliament) seat he has held for more than a half-century. Although he is not contesting the decision, the grand old man of Japanese politics has given several interviews and hosted some select lunches in which he makes little secret of his disgust with the leadership of his Liberal Democratic Party.
Like Nakasone, former Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R.-Calif.) has been vocal and bitter about his forced retirement from politics. Counted out by a much-disputed 984 votes from his Orange County district in 1996–ballots Dornan has long maintained were illegally cast by non-citizens–the conservative firebrand was badly beaten two years later in a rematch with Democrat Loretta Sanchez.
“An investigation of the ’96 election overseen by [then-House Administration Committee Chairman Bill Thomas [R.-Calif.] found votes cast by 1,499 non-citizens, but nothing was ever done about it,” Dornan mentioned recently. “And in 1998 [then-House Speaker] Newt Gingrich and the [national] Republican Party abandoned me.”
Unlike Nakasone at 85, Dornan at 70–a father of five and grandfather of 14–will not go gently into the night. Last year, on the last day of the filing period for the March 2 primary in California, Dornan stunned pundits, pols and the public by launching a challenge to his fellow conservative GOPer, eight-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96%).
Now, the average conservative might wonder, what can Dornan (lifetime ACU rating: 96%) and onetime Reagan White House speechwriter Rohrabacher have to debate about in the heavily Republican 45th District?
“9-11,” Dornan said without hesitation, shortly after filing in December, “The secret life of Dana Rohrabacher is one of close ties to militant Muslims and hostile words and votes toward Israel. My record as a friend of Israel speaks for itself and I’ve had a lot of encouragement to run from prominent members of the Jewish community.” The former congressman and veteran radio talk show host also denounced Rohrabacher for what he characterized as “votes in favor of the homosexual agenda.”
Besides what Dornan calls controversial votes by Rohrabacher, observers of both men point to another reason, more than ten years old, for Dornan’s surprise challenge: his pique over having decided in 1991 to remain in his own reapportioned Garden Grove-area district rather than run in the more securely Republican district held then and now by Rohrabacher (and which includes turf represented in past times by Dornan, such as the heavily Vietnamese community in Westminster).
On this point, each candidate has his own distinct recollection. As Dornan remembers, “We had a six-hour meeting in the office of [fellow California Republican Rep.] Duncan Hunter over who would run and where. Although significant portions of my [pre-1991] district were put in the new district, I deferred to [Rohrabacher] and took the more difficult district. He has never assisted me in any campaign and did not lift a finger to help when my seat was stolen in 1996.”
Rohrabacher’s version of his ’91 summit with Dornan is that “Bob is trying to suggest he was magnanimous and he wasn’t. I made it clear I was going to run in the district where my home was. About 40% of my old district was in the new district, compared to only 10% of his. More of his pre-1991 district was moved into the [neighboring district] of [Republican Rep.] Chris Cox. So why didn’t he run against Chris Cox, I wonder?” Rohrabacher also denied that he never helped Dornan in his 1996 battle, recalling that “Bob’s lawyer [former California GOP Chairman Mike Schroeder] operated out of my office” in challenging Sanchez’s seating.
Whatever the full truth of the origins of the feud, Dornan has made it clear he means business in ’04: He has purchased a condominium in Huntington Beach and he contributed $170,000 of his own money to jumpstart the campaign which, he says, “will have five powerful mailings, lots of cable TV, and not a single paid staffer.”
Even trusted friends of Dana Rohrabacher voice concern over the perception that the congressman is unfriendly to Israel.
“Dana is my best friend and I’m deeply involved with his re-election campaign,” says former California GOP Chairman Shawn Steel, who was best man at Rohrabacher’s wedding, “but I have been unhappy with some of his utterances.”
Echoes Arnold Steinberg, veteran California pollster who helped to first elect Rohrabacher to Congress in 1988 and goes back with him to their Youth for Goldwater days: “As a matter of principle and personal conscience, I’m deeply troubled by Dana’s posture on foreign policy, national security, terrorism, and the Mideast.”
What friends such as Steel and Steinberg and foes such as Dornan are talking about are Rohrabacher’s opposition to all foreign aid, his sharp criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and his casting one of four Republican votes in the House against a pro-Israel resolution in May ’02. Moreover, Rohrabacher has come under criticism for his association with controversial Muslim figures–notably Khaled Saffuri, lobbyist for the American Muslim Institute, who has coordinated donations to the congressman’s re-election campaigns from Muslim donors. (One of them brought up repeatedly by Dornan is AMC founder Abdurahman Alamoudi, who pleaded not guilty in December to an 18-count federal indictment for laundering money and violating immigration and customs laws by accepting $340,000 from the Libyan government. Alamoundi, who made two donations totaling $800 to Rohrabacher campaigns in 1994 and ’96, also contributed $1,000 each to George W. Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, but both of them returned the money when charges against Alamoudi surfaced.)
Reached at his Huntington Beach home (where wife Rhonda is preparing for the birth of triplets), Rohrabacher reviewed the incendiary charges about his record on Israel. Pointing out that he has never voted for any foreign aid, the self-styled libertarian-leaning conservative said that “this predates any position I had on Israel.”
The veteran International Relations Committee member also talked about numerous trips he has made to Qatar and Kuwait–with brief stopovers in Lebanon and Syria–that were paid for by the Islamic Free Market Institution, while only visiting Israel for the first time last May. “I was deeply involved, as you are aware, in overthrowing the Taliban [in Afghanistan] and worked with different groups for years to form a coalition to help our friends such as [slain Afghan Alliance leader] Masoud and [exiled Afghan King] Zehir Shah,” he told me, adding that the former monarch presented him with a royal medal for helping mobilize anti-Taliban forces. “Israel and the Mideast situation were not on my screen.”
Asked about his opposition to the pro-Israel House Resolution 392 and his statement on a television talk show that Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat “are cut out of the same cloth [because] they’re both willing to kill non-combatants”–a statement that prompted an angry outburst from host Alan Keyes–Rohrabacher did not flinch. “I voted against 392, which passed 352 to 21, because the Bush Administration did not want it brought up at all, because they felt it would undermine the peace process. I was voting with the President and for the roadmap to peace. Quite frankly, I believe that resolution, which said ‘the United States and Israel are now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism,’ would have gone down had it been a secret ballot. Everyone else was going alone with a powerful lobby–I was voting for the U.S. and have no apologies.”
Similarly, of his criticism of Sharon, Rohrabacher says: “I was telling the truth. People on both sides are being murdered. It has been said that we will only have peace when we have an Israeli and Palestinian Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. Well, we had an Israeli Walesa in a general who became prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and he gave his life for the peace process I support.”
The congressman volunteered that he would gladly return the donations to Alamoudi, but “I don’t even know how to get ahold of him” and that the AMC leader “had been considered mainstream by Arab and Jewish organizations” at the time he contributed to Rohrabacher. He also dismissed the estimated $34,450 he has received from Muslim donors over a ten-year period as “insignificant” and insisted they have had no influence on him. “You mentioned Saffuri,” he said, “We disagree on a number of issues. I favored an embargo against Saddam’s Iraq and he opposed it.”
Rohrabacher also dismissed Dornan’s charge he has a “pro-gay” voting record. Recalling “the two votes I have cast that could be construed as pro-gay,” he explained “I voted against the Hefley Amendment to overturn an executive order barring refusal to hire on the basis of sexual orientation in the civil service. That’s an order the Bush Administration has not rescinded. And I opposed a measure to prevent the District of Columbia from offering benefits to domestic partners, which is consistent with my support of local democracy.”
All told, few observers of the 46th District believe Dornan can unseat Rohrabacher, who has the backing of nearly all GOP elected and party officials from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on down. But few doubt that, in the coming three weeks, this is a contest that will grow increasingly ugly. Asked if he will debate Dornan and answer the charges against him, Rohrabacher replied: “I won’t be in the same room with the man.”