If you've seen those fatuous commercials of California state Sen. Dick Rainey, you may be rooting for him to lose his re-election bid to represent the East Bay. The TV spots feature Rainey with his daughter Gina, who speaks of her mother's death from breast cancer and explains how her dad sponsored legislation to prohibit HMOs from denying coverage to "anyone with a family history of breast cancer."
Thus, Rainey comes across as a sort of Republican Al Gore -- ready to do anything to court the ladies' vote.
Why only breast cancer? Why not all forms of cancer? A spokesman explained that other legislators sponsored other measures that covered other cancers.
Politics, alas, too often serves to remind the hopeful that things could be worse. Enter the oleaginous Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, the Antioch Democrat who is challenging Rainey. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton will dump a reported $2.1 million into the race to help Torlakson. If Torlakson wins, Senate Dems could have themselves a veto-proof majority.
"Gov. (Gray) Davis has been vetoing a lot of this scary stuff that people like Tom Torlakson have been voting for," Rainey campaign manager Carl Fogliani noted. Can you spell u-l-t-r-a l-i-b-e-r-a-l, boys and girls? Team Rainey has a list of bills that Torlakson supported and Davis wisely vetoed, including a union-friendly bill that would have required a new janitorial contractor to retain the former contractor's workers for 90 days after a contract has been switched.
At a Sunday night debate at Cal State Hayward's Contra Costa campus, Torlakson set about painting Rainey -- a moderate pro-choice Republican from Walnut Creek and former Contra Costa County sheriff -- as a tool of the NRA. Torlakson warned "the incumbent has voted with the NRA, not law enforcement."
If this rhetoric didn't work, what Torlakson said would be laughable. "Sen. Rainey has received a D rating from the NRA," said NRA California elections coordinator Carolyn Herbertson. "I certainly wouldn't call that wrapping himself in the arms of the pro-gun community." Rainey, who said his experience as a sheriff enlightened him as to "what works," voted to tighten the assault-weapon ban. He also voted for a bill requiring safety tests for Saturday Night Specials; he even -- shame, shame --supported an earlier version of the bill that would have banned the manufacture of said guns.
During the debate, Rainey likened his position to that of the governor, who asked for a one-year moratorium on new gun bills to see how the most recent batch of legislation works.
That's Rainey's dilemma. He's up against a sad rule of politics: Nuance gets you nowhere. Torlakson is running on the fact, as one NRA wag put it, that he never met a gun-control law he didn't like.
The affable Rainey -- as one Senate aide explained, is the rare legislator who thanks staffers when they do something for him -- complains about torrents of Demo dollars whooshing through the district. Still, it's hard to imagine Rainey turning down any cash from GOP biggies.
Natural Law Party candidate Mark Billings noted that this race could be "the most expensive Senate race in history." Another rule of politics: The more expensive the race, the dumber the arguments.
For his part, Torlakson charged that Rainey "has a track record for last-minute hits" on his opponents. (Bring them on, I say: Anything but the Al Gore wannabe spots.)
Figure Torlakson earned his reputation as a slick pol -- slick even for a pol -- because he can complain about hit ads while warning voters that Rainey is in the NRA's hip pocket.
The other rule of politics: The more money that pours into a race, the more truth pours out.