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Bono Wife, ‘Waltons’ Actor Face Off

April 7, 1998

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) _ In a sprawling desert district best known as a haven for retired celebrities, the young widow of entertainer-turned-politician Sonny Bono is trying to carry on his political legacy.

On Tuesday, Republican Mary Bono faces Democrat Ralph Waite, who played ``Pa″ John Walton on ``The Waltons,″ in a special election to fill the 44th Congressional District seat left vacant by Bono’s death in a skiing accident.

The race between the well-financed political novices has attracted the attention of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democratic congressional leader Richard Gephardt as they try to build party momentum going into this year’s congressional elections.

And what was a largely low-key race heated up some in late March when Mrs. Bono’s mother-in-law publicly chastised the widow for seeking office while raising her two children, ages 7 and 9.

Mrs. Bono says she entered the race a few weeks after her husband’s Jan. 5 death at the urging of Gingrich and other Republican leaders, and with the support of her children and parents.

Waite, 68, who has recognition from the nine years he spent on ``The Waltons″ in the 1970s, has waged a largely remote-control campaign while starring in a production of ``Death of a Salesman″ in New Jersey.

It’s not Waite’s first political effort. He was the district’s Democratic nominee in 1990, losing to the Republican incumbent at the time, Al McCandless.

Besides front-runners Waite and Mrs. Bono, one other Democrat and three other Republicans are on Tuesday’s ballot _ all politically inexperienced. If no candidate gets at least 50 percent plus one vote, a runoff election will be held June 2.

Waite describes the 36-year-old Mrs. Bono as politically inexperienced and urges voters to get past the personal sentiment that can help widows get elected.

``I’m talking on the issues and hope people can get past the sympathy factor,″ Waite said in a recent interview. ``I think it trivializes the democratic process. It doesn’t make any sense to me.″

As proof of his own community involvement, Waite pointed to his chairmanship of the boards of a local drug recovery center and a coalition that provides low- and middle-income housing.

``I’m qualified because of my age and experience. I’m the one with the kind of experience to do the job,″ said Waite, who graduated from Yale University’s Divinity School and was a minister before turning to acting.

Mrs. Bono, a college graduate who ran a restaurant with her husband before focusing most of her attention on raising the children, discounts Waite’s remarks as ``political slams″ and calls him unfamiliar with the issues.

``I think (the remarks) proved that he has no core political beliefs,″ said Mrs. Bono, who continues to run two companies that handle royalties for properties from her late husband’s days as half of Sonny and Cher.

Waite is a staunch supporter of abortion rights, while Mrs. Bono supports some restrictions, including the need for parental notification. She says she would vote to keep abortion legal during the first trimester.

Waite supports increasing the minimum wage. Mrs. Bono opposes that, saying it would hurt business and the cost would be passed along to consumers.

Mrs. Bono says she’s offended by suggestions that she will be unable to serve in Congress because she’s a mother with school-age children, 7-year-old Chianna and 9-year-old Chesare.

She says she consulted her children, their teachers and the family’s nanny before deciding to run.

``My role now is to expose my children to this wonderful world,″ she said.

Her mother-in-law disagrees.

In interviews and a scathing letter published on the front page of the Desert Sun, Jean Bono, mother of Sonny Bono, said her daughter-in-law’s election would make ``orphans″ out of the children.

Mrs. Bono declined to respond. ``I’d prefer to keep it in the family,″ she said.

Her decision to run was defended by the mother of Bono’s ex-wife Cher, Georgia Holt La Pierre, along with Bono’s daughters from previous marriages, Chastity and Christy.

Voters also will go to the polls in Alameda County in Northern California. Three Democrats and a Republican are vying to replace Democratic Rep. Ron Dellums, who retired in February after more than 27 years in the House of Representatives.

Dellums said it was time he paid attention to his personal life after years in politics.

Generally favored is state Sen. Barbara Lee, a Democrat who was Dellums’ chief of staff and who has his endorsement. She’s opposed by two Democrats and a lone Republican.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes cast, a runoff for the top Democrat and the lone Republican will be held along with the state primary on June 2.

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