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Celebrity Lawmaker Wore Renewed Fame Lightly

By Marc Birtel, CQ Staff Writer

Sonny Bono, the 1960s and 1970s pop singer and television host who became a celebrity House member, may be remembered best for the philosophical way he bore his fame and fortune.

"Sonny was a serious legislator but, unlike so many in public affairs, he distinctly did not take himself too seriously," said Jerry Lewis, California's senior House Republican.

Bono's death at 62 (he was killed in a skiing accident Jan. 5 while vacationing at South Lake Tahoe, Calif.) brought forth a flurry of kind remembrances from friends and colleagues, ranging from the White House and Capitol Hill to Hollywood and Las Vegas.

Many cited his self-deprecating humor, which they said set him apart in the high-powered worlds in which he worked. President Clinton said Bono had "earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policy-making processes that often seem ponderous to the American people."

Arriving in Washington amid the first Republican House majority in 40 years, Bono in 1995 was a magnet for reporters and cameras. But he wore his renewed fame lightly, making friends quickly and becoming one of the most effective fundraisers in the ranks of the GOP. His dinner speeches mixed tales of his show business days with his "common man" view of Washington.

But some of his greatest political moments were motivational, shared only within the company of the GOP Conference. Bono delivered a pivotal concluding speech to his Republican colleagues in July, soon after the abortive attempt by some junior conservatives to replace Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as Speaker.

With emotions running high at the end of the marathon meeting, Bono took the stage and shared some personal tales of his own checkered Hollywood past and the trying times he faced in the mid-1970s.

Bono never found the same comfort level as a legislator. His few speeches on the House floor were rambling and unpolished, if always heartfelt. One of only three non-lawyers on the Judiciary Committee, he sometimes irritated colleagues by objecting to detailed discussions of a bill.

He voted a generally conservative line, but supported abortion rights. He cared deeply for the Salton Sea, located in his district, and worked to establish a task force to improve the water quality of that salt-laden desert lake. Upon Bono's death, Gingrich announced that restoration of the Salton Sea will become an environmental priority when Congress returns.

Bono gained star status in the 1960s when he launched a singing and songwriting career with his wife, Cher. Together they earned 10 gold records, including one for their signature song, "I Got You, Babe." Bono would often mention the gold records as a kind of talisman, noting that he had earned this degree of success despite his admittedly modest musical talents and lack of training.

His show business career peaked with the "Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" on network television in the early 1970s, the demise of which was followed by the couple's divorce and the beginning of Cher's success as a solo artist and movie actress.

But Bono transferred his energy into his restaurants and into politics. Although he never attended college and did not vote until he was 53, Bono won his first bid for public office when he won the mayor's race in Palm Springs in 1988.

Four years later he sought the GOP's nomination for the Senate and finished third with 17 percent of the Republican primary vote. The nomination went to former TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn, who lost to Democrat Barbara Boxer that fall.

Herschensohn subsequently managed Bono's bid for Congress in 1994, helping him win the seat vacated by veteran Republican Al McCandless (1983-1995).

Special Election

California GOP Gov. Pete Wilson has until Jan. 20 to call a special primary election in Bono's 44th District and has the option to consolidate the special election to coincide with the state's regular primary on June 2. Wilson has chosen to consolidate similar elections in the past, and is likely to choose April 7 for the open special primary, with the top vote-getters from each party meeting eight weeks later in a special general election on June 2 (if no candidate receives more than 50 percent).

Bono's will be a tough political act to follow, but both parties are quietly seeking candidates to fill the open seat. Some Republicans are urging Herschensohn to run, noting the district's conservative leanings.

Others have mentioned state Rep. Jim Battin, who had expressed interest in the seat if Bono made another bid for the Senate. Battin's father served in the House as a Republican from Montana from 1961 to 1969. Other Republican possibilities include state Rep. Brett Granlund and Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson.

Democrats are considering a pair of actors: William Devane, known for his role on the television series "Knots Landing," and Ralph Waite, known for his lead role on "The Waltons." Waite was the Democratic nominee against McCandless in 1990.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 10, 1998

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Ferraro Is Back, And So Is The Character Issue
29 House Incumbents Bolt Out Of The Starting Gate
Celebrity Lawmaker Wore Renewed Fame Lightly
No Solution In Sight As Congress Prepares To Tackle Settlement
House Democrats Face Losing Another Seat In The South
Could Gingrich Top GOP's 2000 List?
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