The Secret Lives of Bob Dornan

Inside the Fevered Imagination of O.C.'s Most Infamous Congressman

 

Dornan won't budge from his professed military bona fides, telling OCWeekly this week that he has never misrepresented his record. Nor will he acknowledge that, as a young man, his greatest ambition was to act, not to fight. "I have bled for my country," he told reporters in February during his failed presidential campaign. "I came as close to death as Bob Dole." There are crucial differences, of course, which Dole diplomatically pointed out. Dole faced enemy fire on foreign soil. Dornan bloodied his nose ejecting from a training plane he crashed in the Arizona desert.

 

 

 

After umpteen political challenges, no Orange County Democrat has managed to eject Dornan from his House seat. Sanchez says Dornan is more vulnerable than ever. Thanks in part to a quixotic presidential campaign, Dornan neglected the congressional race and finished the first 18 months of the election cycle with just $23,000 on hand--the least he's ever had entering the final months of a congressional campaign.

 

Sanchez, on the other hand, has been storming around the country, collecting big contributions and waving the results of a poll released this week that shows Dornan and Sanchez even at 43 percent, with 12 percent undecided and 2 percent for other candidates.

 

"People here are fed up with Bob Dornan's lack of interest in helping to solve the district's problems," said Sanchez, a business consultant and Anaheim native who has aired cable-TV campaign commercials touting her roots in the community. "He's out of touch. He has never lived in this district, and that's one of the reasons I think I'm going to win."

 

Is Dornan concerned? Hardly.

 

"She can't beat me," he said. "Bob Dornan is a father of five, grandfather of 10, military man, been married 41 years. She has no kids, no military, no track record. I win."

 

Bennett, the congressman's former chief of staff, sees a perfect match between Dornan and what he views as Dornan's conservative constituency. "Dornan fits that district," he said.

 

But the fit is an uneasy one for several reasons. The 46th is largely Latino, pro-choice and--at least by voter-registration numbers--Democratic. It is also working-class. Dornan, by any estimate but his own, is decidedly wealthy. Twenty years in Washington have been very good to him. He may wear cheap, worn-out suits from another era and whine about the financial burdens of public life--claiming he has zero assets--but the nine-term congressman is wealthy beyond the dreams of most of his Orange County constituents. Their median household income is barely $35,000; Dornan, the professed anti-government rebel, quietly lives the comfortable, well-to-do life of a Washington insider.

 

 

 

Unlike a number of congressmen who live in their districts, rent in Washington and commute weekly, Dornan long ago set up a permanent camp inside the Beltway. Thirty minutes outside the nation's capital in an upscale, rural neighborhood along the banks of the historic Occaquan River in Fairfax, Virginia, sits Donegal Hill, Dornan's 12-room, 5-acre estate. Here, in a posh community called the Hamptons, off Beaver Pond Lane, past an elegant colonial-style property entrance, up a lengthy, curved, tree-lined driveway and inside a luxurious two-story, 4,800-square-foot house with hardwood floors, Orange County's most notorious politician since Nixon plots the moves of his politically estranged yet financially lucrative empire.

 

When I asked Dornan, who says his income is limited to his $133,600-a-year congressional salary, how he could afford to live so comfortably, he said, "The answer is one word: mortgages." Then he complained that his biggest worry was heating the house in winter and cooling it in summer."You should see my utility bills," he said. "They are enormous."

 

Peppered with million-dollar mansions and four-car garages, Dornan's exclusive neighborhood stands in sharp contrast to his unnamed, nondescript, lower-middle-class house on Garden Grove's Blackthorn Street--the one he lists as his official residence. According to real-estate records, he purchased the single-story house for $104,000 in 1984 after relocating from Los Angeles to successfully unseat Jerry Patterson, a five-term incumbent congressman. Democrats say the house was bought to establish false roots in the district and complain that he's almost never there.

 

 

 

Even though Dornan is neither the assetless man nor the battle-hardened warrior he claims to be, I think he is fascinating--the way a live, uncaged dinosaur would be. In between careers in 1994, I spent the last weeks of the general election volunteering for Mike Farber's disorganized and doomed campaign against Dornan. During part of 1995, I also worked as a consultant for Farber. Some people might think that makes me ill-suited to report on Dornan. But these experiences have given me insight into how the man operates. To me, Dornan's crass, holier-than-thou rhetoric symbolizes the deterioration of our country's political debates. It's hard to respect a politician who calls himself a "patriot" and "American hero" while calling opponents "boot-licking wimps" or "homos." But in one of life's little ironies, I came away from that losing campaign more intrigued than resentful. I learned how personally captivating Dornan can be. On two occasions just before the November 1994 election, he telephoned our campaign office at night and--by speakerphone--traded hilarious jokes and impersonations with us for what seemed like an hour. His performances made favorable impressions on several hardcore liberal volunteers who, minutes before, had been calling him evil.

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