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By Kate Conger
It's said that the great boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, following the first of his many retirements, spent entire days hitting tennis balls to nobody, staring vacantly at the court between serves.
This terrible malaise -- one that seems to afflict nearly every former champion -- drove Sugar Ray to endless comeback attempts despite doctors' warnings that further blows to his head might cause him to go blind.
Ed Rollins knows how that malaise feels, because he, too, was a boxer. A former pro-am contender raised in the sweaty gyms of Vallejo, Rollins took under-the-table payoffs to fight fading champs and promising up-and-comers during the 1960s.
Later, as a political consultant, Rollins used his combative instincts to guide Ronald Reagan to the greatest margin of victory in modern presidential politics.
But Rollins suffered a career-ending knockout when he managed the failed 1994 senate campaign of noted stuffed shirt Michael Huffington. And his 1996 book Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms savagely insulted so many people that it seemed to lend credence to his claim that he had left politics for good. "So now, I'm hanging up the gloves," Rollins wrote, a couple of pages after referring to Huffington as a "dumb-fuck candidate."
But it appears Rollins couldn't give up the fight. Quietly, stealthily, he's stepping back into the ring of California state politics, where he began his career.
He's signed on as general consultant to the Senate campaign of U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs.
Rollins wouldn't respond to a dozen requests for an interview, but Riggs says Rollins helped him craft the hat-in-the-ring speech he delivered last month, which included a Reagan-like promise to "repair and rebuild the moral fabric of American society."
Rollins and Riggs have devised a low-budget, district-by-district campaign that will depend heavily on political favors from fellow representatives, Riggs and his wife Cathy said during recent interviews.
"It's time to move up," Riggs says.
Whatever time it is, the Riggs campaign looks like it could be the famed consultant's swan song.
A recent Field Poll showed only 3 percent of voters would pick Riggs for Senate, making him a distant third among Republican challengers. Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, meanwhile, got 42 percent.
Riggs is best known as the chief apologist for the sheriff's deputies who, last year, dabbed pepper spray into anti-logging protesters' eyes at his district office in Eureka. He likes to brag that he helped expose the house banking scandal -- but fails to mention that he was later shown to have written rubber checks of his own. He savages Boxer as part of the "permanent Washington establishment," then, during quieter moments, says, "I really believe electoral office is an ideal forum for public service, and this is a calling of sorts for me."
Most significantly, Riggs' is the poorest campaign in the race. "All the skill in the world is worthless without the money to implement strategy," says Jennifer Duffy, political analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.
But a closer examination may reveal weapons valuable to fighting a down-and-dirty, Rollins-style campaign.
Cathy Riggs is widely known as one of the shrewdest political wives in Washington. It was Cathy who first phoned Ed Rollins and convinced him to sign on as consultant to her husband's campaign. "I just gave Ed a call because he's the single best California strategist for a statewide campaign," she says.
During the 1990 congressional elections, former cop Cathy Riggs dug through the personal financial records of Doug Bosco, whom Frank Riggs was challenging for California's first congressional seat. Cathy learned Bosco had ties to failed savings and loans, helping to cinch victory for her husband. In 1994, Cathy found Dan Hamburg had collected unemployment insurance during his 1992 congressional campaign. The further discovery of a Hamburg trust fund put Frank and Cathy back in Washington after a two-year hiatus.
Cathy has since honed her investigative skills by earning a law degree, and recently opened her own political research firm. The Riggs campaign is now creating dossiers on incumbent Sen. Boxer, she says.
"Part of what I would do is cull down whatever the senatorial committee has produced. This book is 2 or 3 inches thick," says Cathy. "I'm one of those people who remember information. When I was a police officer, I would memorize mug shots. And in my business, I'm able to remember things, make connections."
Roy Behr, consultant to Barbara Boxer's Senate campaign, scoffs.
"There is no reason to take Frank Riggs seriously. He has no resources. He has no support," Behr says. "When you hire someone with [Ed Rollins'] checkered background, it tells whether you are willing to do anything to win. It tells whether you are truly desperate."
But Rollins does lend heft -- and a sting -- to a campaign that would otherwise appear to merely float like a butterfly.
His presence also provides fodder for some exciting pre-match speculation: Did Cathy Riggs dish Rollins a piece of dirt the mudmeister simply couldn't resist? Does Rollins see in Frank Riggs the kind of battle-hardened Republican with whom he could launch a new consulting career? Or is Rollins making the same sort of pathetic comeback attempt that has put ellipses at the end of every great boxing career?