A Tough Game on Tea Party Turf
By Mark Whicker
Someone asked Suzanne Savary if she could speak for 45 minutes about businesses and their need for change. She laughed and replied, “I could speak for 45 hours.”
She could, and in this campaign season, she has. At a recent campaign stop in Westminster, Calif., she spoke to a retired Navy officer — who wore a cap that read “Cold War Veteran” — for 20 minutes one-on-one. They stood on a sidewalk, on busy Beach Boulevard outside a Vietnamese teahouse, during a listening tour by Savary. Those inside the restaurant had already done their share of listening.
Savary, a retired professor, is an elegant, blond, 67-year-old grandmother of six. She said she had been told she should quit saying she’s a grandmother, “but it’s the reason I’m running.”
She has consulted, taught and organized, having been “the president of almost everything I’ve been involved in,” and she is convinced that the United States has to break out of its political handcuffs or become as obsolete as Eastman Kodak or Sears.
Savary, a Democrat, is running against Dana Rohrabacher in California’s 48th Congressional District. It is like trying to beat the University of Alabama football team in Tuscaloosa.
Rohrabacher, also 67, reached the House in 1988. He had written speeches for President Ronald Reagan and editorials for the hard-right editorial page of the Orange County Register. He has won 12 elections, beating 10 Democrats in three districts. The only time a Democrat got over 40 percent against him was 2008, when Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook lost 53 percent to 43 percent.
The Republicans’ antipathy toward legislation, once they captured the House in 2010, suited Rohrabacher fine. In his 25 years in Washington he has introduced only three bills that were signed by a president, and all 13 bills he has introduced this year failed to make it out of committee, according to Ballotpedia.com.
Despite his seniority Rohrabacher is not a chairman of a committee. He lost a bid to chair the Science Committee to Lamar Smith of Texas, a Christian Scientist.
Rohrabacher stood with 16 other Republican House members who voted against the reopening of the government in 2013. But the only real news he has made lately is his defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was one of 33 House members who did not vote to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine, voting “present” instead.
With the cable networks preferring stronger voices like those of right-wing House members Steve King and Jason Chaffetz, Rohrabacher isn’t a major part of the conservative entertainment industry anymore. Yet he has remained politically untouchable, particularly since he jumped into the 48th, which runs down the wealthy Orange County coast.
Savary lives in Newport Beach, well within enemy lines. She supported Hillary Clinton in 2008. She remembers afterwards sitting on her deck with friends, having a glass of wine.“We wondered, are we the only Democrats in Newport Beach?” she said. Soon they organized the Newport Beach Women’s Democratic Club, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez called on Savary to run.
At the urging of her two children, Savary sold her 40-foot boat, the Gaspra, named after an asteroid that was discovered by her late husband, Ken. She telephoned her son, Scott, a lawyer in San Diego, and told him she was running against Rohrabacher. He gasped, perhaps thinking his mother had traded a comfortable avocation for an uncomfortable one. “We wouldn’t have told you to sell the boat in that case,” he said. “Besides, you used to get paid to give speeches.”
She certainly did. She was an associate professor at the University of Southern California business school and founded her own management consulting firm. “In business you either change or die,” she said. “You see Orange County’s affluence but then you start looking at the edges, and it’s all based on housing. We could be like Kodak or Sears — they never saw Amazon and Instagram coming.”
That is her analysis of the tea party’s startling impact on American politics, which might well lead to a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate next year.
“The tea party is the beneficiary of the fear of change,” she said. “I understand it. It’s that feeling: ‘Please take me back there,’ as if it was a safer place. It’s inappropriate to capitalize on that fear and that’s what Dana has done. I can’t believe he has two daughters and yet he voted against the Violence Against Women Act, voted against equal pay for women.
“ … I was at a function with seven other candidates, all Republican, and heard all the things they said. I got up and just said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you have just been played.’ ’’
Still, it took the most wrenching kind of change to reset Savary’s life.
She and Ken moved to California to work for Carl Sagan on the first “Cosmos” television series.
Sagan’s dynamism was not an act for TV, she said.“A man of real certitude,” she said. “I remember there was a mobile of all the planets, and the TV people wanted to move Mars just a bit so it wouldn’t interfere with our shot. Carl was horrified. He started yelling, ‘Mooooove Maaaars? After milllllions and millllllions of years?’ We all had our scars from working with him.’’
In 1988 Ken Savary was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Five years later he died.
“I felt like a puddle lying on the floor,” Savary said. “Watching my children watch their father die was the worst part.” She threw herself further into the “change management” business, traveling and reorganizing companies.
“Change” was the hot word for both Bill Clinton and Barack Omaha when they won the White House for the first time. The organization that Savary aims to join — the U.S. House — might be the nation’s most change-resistant.
According to the Cook Political Report, only 48 of the 435 House races are either tossups or leaning slightly toward one of the parties. The rest are locks. And, according to The New York Times, there are 193 races that have had less than $10,000 in total spending.
Debbie Cook, who was only 10 percentage points behind Rohrabacher in the 2008 race, had no appetite for running again. She worked for the Post Carbon Institute and other renewable energy advocacy groups.
“It’s frustrating,” Cook said in a telephone interview. “The districts are so gerrymandered that hardly anybody even has to campaign. But the problem is public apathy. You can stop 100 people on the street and probably 99 of them wouldn’t know who their representative is.
“There are so many races, and the media can’t cover any of them as well as they should. It costs so much money to do any TV advertising. At least we made Rohrabacher spend a little money [in 2008], and we did have a debate at Orange Coast College, which drew a really good crowd. But there were no aftereffects from that.
“People get bored with politicians and say they don’t say anything original. Well, duh. The way things are now, you can’t say anything the least bit controversial or people go crazy. I don’t know how we get out of this. You can’t break through to people, and when they go into the booth they just look at the R and the D and vote from there.”
Maybe the low expectations have freed Savary to campaign the way she pleases, with complete sentences and long paragraphs. Or maybe she is prepping for another run, in 2016, since she says her issues “go far beyond this election.”
Moving Mars will take a while.Wait, before you go…
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