As a first-time candidate whose very first foray into politics at any level was to run in one of the most critical, most competitive state Senate districts in California, it's safe to say that L.A. County prosecutor Todd Zink had no idea what he was getting himself in for. It's an experience almost like putting on football pads for the very first time and then stepping onto the field for a National Football League game. Those guys are bigger, faster and hit a whole lot harder than you ever could have imagined.
Now Zink, the Republican candidate in eastern Ventura County's 27th Senate District, finds himself hurt and perplexed -- and not unjustifiably so -- over a series of negative mailers, including this one paid for by the California Democratic Party, that attack him over the issue of abortion. The mailers contrast his position on abortion with that of incumbent Democrat Fran Pavley.
The assault is mostly based on one line in a story I wrote about Zink in advance of the June primary. In our interview, I asked him where he stood on the question of abortion. He said he did not oppose legal abortions for women who had become pregnant as a result of incest or rape. I did not ask him further about other potential exceptions, such as cases in which carrying the pregnancy to term would endanger the life or health of the mother. This was the resulting sentence from that exchange that appeared in the May 19 article: "Zink has an anti- abortion position and believes it ought to be an option for women only in cases of rape or incest."
In my view, the sentence is accurate and was appropriate for inclusion in the story. The essential dividing line between "anti-abortion" and "pro-choice" in American political discourse is whether someone believes any woman ought to have the legal option to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester based entirely on her own judgment. By saying he believes that right should be extended only to those who became pregnant through acts of rape or incest, Zink established which side of that dividing line he is on.
The issue has taken on renewed significance in 2012 campaigns because of increasing efforts in Congress and in statehouses around the country to restrict access to abortion. In addition, it is an issue that gives voters an indication as to where along the left-to-right political spectrum any given candidate stands.
It is my belief, based upon that and subsequent conversations, that Zink has never given the issue extensive thought. He is certainly no zealot. "It's not a driving issue for me," he told me yesterday. "I am not invested in that whole movement, It's not something my family is passionate about. I have no intention to try to overturn the law of the land."
He said essentially the same thing when asked about it at a candidates' forum on Oct. 4. " I do believe in the sanctity of life, however I do understand with abortion it's a very personal and ethical decision for each and every woman that is faced with that situation," he said. He then went on to reiterate what he told me last spring: "I am OK with abortion for rape and incest. I do not necessarily embrace it for regular contraceptive or means of birth control."
That last part may indicate a certain underappreciation of the frightfully anguishing and potentially life-changing situation a woman finds herself in after she learns she has unintentionally become pregnant. But taken as a whole, the response does not strike me as particularly radical or extreme, nor is it the rhetoric of someone on a mission to undo Roe v. Wade.
Yet the mailers hone in expressly on this issue and declare, "Todd Zink takes a radical anti-choice position." Then, inaccurately citing the May 19 Ventura County Star article, it alleges that Zink is "strongly against a woman's right to choose -- even if a pregnancy places a woman's life or health at risk."
The story didn't say that. It was silent on that point, just as Zink had been silent about that point in his response to my question. (Following up with him yesterday, Zink told me that he does in fact believe exceptions should be granted in those instances.)
Is Zink's position anti-choice? Yes. Is it "radical"? Only if one considers the position of anyone who believes that abortion should not be legal in most circumstances to be radical.
The mailer is misleading because it portrays Zink to be a zealot on the abortion issue, which he is not.
Zink seems genuinely hurt by the attack, in part because of his experience as a Marine officer in Afghanistan, where he was involved in establishing health clinics that dealt with life-or-death issues for women. "Over in Afghanistan," he told me, "we saved countless women's lives. These women had ungodly health issues."
Zink has never held public office at any level, never had to cast a public vote on any issue. And during the campaign, likely following the advice of oh-so-clever political consultants, he has not taken a position on any specific issue of consequence. That may have left his opponents with only policy position of note they can attempt to use against him, but even so they are overplaying it.