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The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Many not enchanted with Cunningham’s style

Shoot-from-hip attitude grates on voters of new district

Source: San Diego Union-Tribune. 26 October 1992.

Staff Writer

Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham has never subscribed to the protocol that freshmen in Congress should be seen and not heard.

From his early days in Washington, when the ex-fighter pilot became an instant media analyst of the gulf war, to his recent speeches on the House floor questioning Bill Clinton’s patriotism, Cunningham has garnered more national attention in one term than other congressmen do in a lifetime.

Cunningham boasts he has “cut my own rudder” in politics, but critics prefer another nautical metaphor for the 50-year-old Republican: a loose cannon rolling around the deck of a ship.

They argue that the more Cunningham captures the spotlight, the more his shoot-from-the-hip style grates on the conservative middle-class voters who should be his political base in the new 51st Congressional District.

The sprawling district, which covers most of North County and northern San Diego, previously was home to Reps. Ron Packard and Clair Burgener, courtly behind-the-scenes operators whose sense of decorum would not permit them to claim that the probable future president is a KGB dupe, or to propose, as Cunningham did, that the House leadership “be lined up and shot.”

Savings and loan president Jim Rady, the former Escondido mayor, is one of the many loyal Republicans who contend the excitable Cunningham “frankly doesn’t fit our district up here.”

“I guess he’s going to be elected, but I haven’t been turned on by him, and I don’t know anyone who has,” said Rady, who ran for Congress in 1982 with Burgener’s endorsement. “I’m going to vote for him, but I’m not happy about it.”

Joining Cunningham were his political mentor, Duncan Hunter of Coronado, as well as Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove and Sam Johnson of Texas. Cunningham has also petitioned the CIA to examine its files on Clinton.

Herbert, a 71-year-old retired accountant, said she began hearing from “disenchanted Republicans” not long after Cunningham began what she calls “this foolishness about the KGB.”

“They’re embarrassed by him,” Herbert said. “One man told me, ‘I’m a 52-year-old Marine and I voted Republican all my life, but I sure am not voting for that man.’ He even called him a name.”

Further name-calling can be heard from Roe, a publishing executive and former Del Mar mayor. An erstwhile Democrat, Roe, 56, is promoting the platform of environmentalism, non-violence and community-based economics advanced by the fledgling Green Party. “First and foremost, I think Cunningham is a fascist,” Roe said, citing the congressman’s remark to a North County newspaper that he “would have no hesitation to lining up and shooting” Vietnam War protesters.

“Apparently he has a short memory, forgetting that that was a very, very unpopular war,” Roe said. “I’m assuming that he would have shot Clinton. It’s sickening to think this man is a U.S. congressman upholding the Constitution, which gives us the right to dissent. He seems to think this is some blue-collar, back-country, redneck district,” Roe said. “These are educated people who don’t respond to authoritarian tactics.”

Cunningham, for his part, is contrite about his repeated calls for firing-squad justice — “It’s an expression I probably won’t use again” — but not his accusations concerning Clinton.

“If he is elected, the first thing I’ll do is I’ll go up to President Clinton and tell him why I feel so deeply on the issue,” Cunningham said in an interview. “I was shot down by Soviet weapons. Two MIGs I shot down, the pilots were trained in the Soviet Union . . . It’s a very personal thing.”

Laughing off the suggestion that his charges might hurt his effectiveness during a Clinton administration, Cunningham spelled out his concern about the Moscow trip:

“I don’t think Clinton went there to work for the KGB. I don’t think he went there to help the Soviet cause or become a Communist. I think he was there because he didn’t agree with the war, and those people were sympathetic with his views. They could help organize and help do some of the things he wanted to do against the war.”

Both Roe and Herbert believe Cunningham will lose votes because of his opposition to abortion rights and his zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Cunningham, a born-again Christian, will not moderate his abortion position, but he said he plans to become more environmentally conscious in the new district, just as he has become attuned to the concerns of minority groups while representing his current South Bay district.

Herbert, who has worked as tax specialist and finance director of a state agency in Ohio, said even voters who share her opponent’s Cold War mentality might prefer her background.

“I know he was a war hero and that’s wonderful,” Herbert said. “But right now we don’t need war heroes in Congress. We need people who know how to handle money and recognize fat in a budget, which I have lots of experience doing.”

Copyright © 1992 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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