Ukiahs ex-Hunk on the Hill goes Green in run for governor

Of all the candidates across the country running for political office this year, it is a safe bet that there is only one who:

*Was named by People magazine as "one of the 50 most beautiful people in the galaxy" and was dubbed "The Hunk on the Hill" while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

*Read Martin Buber's "I and Thou" in the original German.

*Is a Jew with a Muslim woman as his running mate.

Meet Daniel Hamburg, the Green Party's candidate for governor of California.

In an era of carefully packaged, poll-driven politicians backed by multimillion-dollar campaign chests, Hamburg stands out with his unapologetic leftist agenda.

Hamburg's war chest totals some $10,000, his campaign headquarters in his hometown of Ukiah is staffed by two paid workers and he stays with friends while making his pitch in larger cities.

The 49-year-old candidate grew up in the Jewish country club set of St. Louis, a city he has recalled as religiously and racially segregated.

"The Jews went to their country clubs and the Christians went to theirs," he told the Bulletin in a 1993 interview.

His family belonged to a Reform synagogue, where he attended Sunday school and was confirmed. "My parents were basically twice-a-year Jews," he says.

His early encounter with Judaism was "much too prosaic," Hamburg says, and exerted little influence until he enrolled in Stanford University's religious studies department.

There he discovered Martin Buber, first in the philosopher's "Tales of the Hasidim," and then in his most famous work, "I and Thou," which Hamburg read in German while an exchange student in Austria.

At Stanford, he minored in Vietnam war protests and then embarked on a somewhat erratic career, steadied by a consistent outlook that stood, as he puts it, "at the intersection of spirituality and social action."

His role models, then as now, were such men as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. He sought to follow their examples during two years teaching in China, and later in Johannesburg as a political consultant to Mandela's post-apartheid government. Along the way, he earned a master's degree in religion at San Francisco State University.

For Hamburg, who observes Jewish holidays, particularly Passover "because it celebrates deliverance," politics and spirituality are inextricably entwined.

"I think the only true politics are rooted in spiritual understanding," the politician, who is decidedly pro-Israel, has said.

In 1992, running as a Democrat, Hamburg was elected to the House of Representatives from California's huge, sparsely populated first congressional district, which stretches for 350 miles from the Oregon border to just north of the Bay Area.

But the freshman congressman's progressive agenda alienated the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition and the influential timber and oil companies. Hamburg lost his re-election bid in 1994.

Two years later, Hamburg resigned from the Democratic Party — convinced that "it no longer was a vehicle for social change" — and joined the Greens.

Hamburg's running mate for lieutenant governor is Sara Amir, an immigrant from Iran who is a scientist with California's Environmental Protection Agency.

The main platform planks of the Green Party directly counter the politics of most Californians, as expressed in recent referendums. The platform includes reinstatement of affirmative action, strengthening bilingual education, an end to immigrant "bashing" and abolition of the death penalty.

Hamburg says there are about 100,000 registered Green voters in California. In this year's open primary, Hamburg received 90,000 votes and Amir a surprising 147,000.

That's obviously not enough to win a statewide race, though Green Party members now occupy 29 local offices.

Hamburg sees his campaign as a "seeding effort" to develop the Greens as the most viable alternative party, especially among minorities and Democrats, "who hold their noses while voting for the Democratic ticket."

Married for 27 years and now a grandfather, the lean and tall candidate remains a striking figure, square-jawed and with abundant salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a ponytail.

Looking back now on his brief fame as Capitol Hill's sex symbol, Hamburg laughs.

"My kids thought it was a riot and my wife said that the publicity would help me in getting my message across," he says.

"Now, though, I'm a bit unhappy about the whole thing because it trivialized the political process. That's really part of our cultural sickness."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent