Halloween VI: Election Fright!

In the sixth congressional district, J.D. Hayworth and Steve Owens have run campaigns so devoid of content it's almost scary

Forgery. Lies. Organized crime. Multimillion-dollar transactions. Two guys in dark suits with expensive haircuts.

It sounds like a B-movie, but it's really the race between incumbent John David "J.D." Hayworth Jr. and his challenger Steve Owens for the opportunity to represent Arizona's sixth district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

With the presidential election all but decided in Bill Clinton's favor, the chase for 469 House and Senate seats--and control of Congress--might have been the place for voters to find some excitement and substance in the final weeks of the 1996 election. And for months now, the Hayworth-Owens race has been touted as a national bellwether, a chance to hear issues hashed out, to see whether the Republican Revolution or the Clinton Agenda would prevail.

But the race in the sixth district hasn't been exciting or substantial or even modestly intelligent; it's been surreal, almost scary.

Hayworth--the Gingrich Republican--and Owens--a Gore/Clinton Democrat--haven't spent much time discussing welfare reform, education innovation or deficit reduction. Instead, America has been treated to the latest chapter in a book of many volumes: Incredibly Embarrassing Behavior by Arizona Politicians.

Even on the superficial level, the Hayworth-Owens race is unlovely, something that local radio personality Pat McMahon could reasonably cast as Oral Roberts versus The Robot.

In fact, Hayworth, a former sportscaster/motivational speaker/insurance agent who has lived in Arizona since 1987, does have an air of evangelism when he touts the Contract With America that so many of his GOP congressional brethren seem to have forgotten. Also, he's loud; he's got a huge, red forehead that gets redder when he gets excited and seems, in times of stress, ready to explode; and he's fond of using air quotes--imaginary quotation marks made with the fingers, the trademark of the not-ready-for-prime-time motivational speaker. His opponents tend to describe him with words that begin with the letter "b": bombastic, blustering, bumbling, brash, beefy.

Steve Owens is a tight-lipped Laurel to Hayworth's rubber-mouthed Hardy. Tall and thin, with a bobbing Adam's apple, Owens has a tendency to stare into television cameras as though he's been hypnotized. Indeed, Owens looks and acts a lot like his mentor and friend, Vice President Al Gore--although many have noted that Owens is even stiffer. (Owens worked as Gore's chief counsel and state director before settling in Phoenix in 1988.)

Owens begins every public appearance by reciting:

Hi.
I'm Steve Owens.
My father was a truckdriver.
My mother still works at Sears.

But Owens' attempts at down-home always seem to fall flat, in part because his appearance oozes the sort of wimp factor that surrounds George Bush. Owens simply looks more like an Ivy League, downtown Phoenix lawyer than the son of a Memphis truckdriver. The wardrobe is Brooks Brothers, not Sears.

It is not physical presence alone that has made the District 6 race seem so tawdry and content-free. Neither is it a lack of money. The cash continues to pour into both campaigns' piggy banks. As of October 15, Hayworth had raised $704,000, with $329,000 on hand. Owens had raised $482,000, with $415,000 on hand.

That doesn't count the money spent on "educational" commercials by the AFL-CIO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and both national parties. The AFL-CIO alone has spent more than $1 million on the race.

And this sad campaign cannot be blamed on lack of expertise, either. Hayworth has hired a national firm, the Stuart Stevens Group, to produce his campaign commercials. Another national firm, Trippi, McMahon and Squire, is producing Owens' ads.

District 6 stretches from east Mesa north to the Four Corners and west to Flagstaff. The district includes the tony communities of north Scottsdale, Carefree and Cave Creek, as well as the run-down mining towns of Globe, Miami and Clifton and the Navajo Indian Reservation.

The senior and low-income residents of the district are concerned about welfare reform and possible cuts in Medicare. Urbanites want to know how the candidates will limit crime. Rural folks want to know how the candidates will preserve cattle-grazing rights while protecting the environment.

Yet as their prospective constituents and the nation watch, Owens and Hayworth continue to clog airwaves and front pages with picayune allegations of inside-baseball impropriety:

A Hayworth staffer forged a signature on a campaign document. Horrors!

An Owens ally used a congressional fax machine to send the Democrat some campaign information. Imagine!

Hayworth's campaign is funded by big business. Owens' campaign is funded by labor interests, some of which may have mob connections.

Hayworth is a carpetbagger.

Owens is a carpetbagger.

All of these statements are at least partially based in fact. None has much to do with good public policy, good politics or good sense.

J.D. Hayworth ran for Congress in 1994, with the promise that he would not be a typical Washington lawmaker.

That's a campaign promise he kept.

Hayworth barged into Washington, D.C., determined to bring about change. His oratorical skill and volume garnered him key policy-making positions as a freshman. He quickly made a fool of himself.

This widely acknowledged buffoonery should not have come as a surprise to anyone who knew Hayworth. He has a documented history of brash behavior. In 1980, while serving as student-body president at North Carolina State University, Hayworth made the front page of the school newspaper, Technician, for his remarks during a student council meeting.

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