Keeping Sonny's dream alive

A Sixties star's widow or a TV favourite? Tim Cornwell on a choice facing Palm Springs voters
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The Independent Online
PALM SPRINGS grew up as a desert bolt-hole for the movie industry, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, and almost as old as Hollywood itself. Its chief business now is golf, and delivering a winter refuge for the white-haired and well-off.

But one of the first US elections of 1998 takes place in the district this April, in a vote to replace the late Sonny Bono, the composer and entertainer turned politician who died in a freak skiing accident in January. The heavy favourite to replace him is his wife, Mary, recruited to the task by Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich. Her only serious opposition is Ralph Waite, pushing 70 and the actor who made a career as John "Pa" Walton of The Waltons TV series.

The votes of the over-60 set will be critical. Life moves at a leisurely pace here, and in the last local elections, turnout was just 17 per cent. "It is difficult to get people to go out and vote," said Jim Stuart, a Republican strategist. "People are comfortable and not that concerned."

But Waite finds reason for hope in the age profile of the voters. "Almost half the district are senior citizens, and I'm a senior citizen," he said.

The average temperature in Palm Springs is 88, goes the joke, and so is the average age. It's a place where you don't know your neighbours, but you've heard of them, from Bob Hope to Barry Manilow to former President Gerald Ford, with occasional sightings of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Along Golf Club and Racket Club road, one encounters The Cocky Cactus souvenir shop, the Palm Tee Hotel, or the Desert Dialysis medical centre. The Plaza Theatre on the main drag offers the Fabulous Palm Spring Follies, every cast member guaranteed over 50, with the finale a line of high-kicking Long Legged Lovelies.

Waite's campaign literature stresses his training as a Protestant preacher, his Marine service, and his first nearly successful run for Congress in 1990. But the role of Pa Walton, the down-home shaggy-browed patriarch of Walton Mountain, has stuck to Waite for two decades. Its nine-year run ended in 1981, though it has enjoyed a mini-revival in Britain in the Sunday morning hangover slot. The series was set "after the depression, when things were not easy and people had to be self-reliant and had to raise families without the affluence we have today," he said. "It did picture a hard-working family that cared deeply about each other and went to work everyday and were responsible citizens. Family people. Family values are important over here."

It's not clear how that message will sell to the white-shoe, blue-rinse crowd, who in Palm Springs tend to be loyal Republicans. Mary Bono, Waite admits, certainly has the sympathy vote locked up, for a husband who gave Palm Springs a lot of extra cachet. Mary, 36, met Sonny, who was 62 when he died, at his Los Angeles restaurant. She first told CNN's Larry King "no" when asked if she was politically involved.

A certain amount of tut-tutting has played in the letters column of the local newspaper over her decision to run as the single mother of two children, Chesare, nine, and Chianna, seven. But she has powerful allies. A swing of only 12 congress seats would cost the Republicans their Congress majority, and they are taking no chances. Dan Quayle, a regular Palm Springs golfer, is among the big names helping her raise money.

Waite is running his campaign long distance, while playing Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman in an off-Broadway show in New York - "probably the greatest part on the American stage", he calls it.

Yet he may have taken his eye off the ball. Only last week Newt Gingrich unveiled a bill to reclaim the dying Salton Sea, a man-made lake 40 miles east of Palm Springs that was once the centre of a thriving desert resort. A refuge for migrating birds, its salt levels have run so high from agricultural run-off and river pollution that it has been blamed in mass die-offs of visiting flocks. Bono had adopted it as a popular political cause, and Mary appeared at a press conference with Gingrich to announce the bill. "Sonny wanted to be known for saving the Salton Sea more than for his songs and his entertainment," she said, and promised to make it his legacy.