The Dems' Wine-and-Cheese Whiz

Wylie Aitken shows how an RFK lover makes it big in OC politics

On Nov. 14, The Orange County Register published a front-page picture of Loretta Sanchez's parking-lot press conference as she declared her election-upset victory. Standing next to and slightly behind the novice Democratic candidate who bounced Bob Dornan from Congress was a smiling, salt-and-pepper-haired man named Wylie Aitken. Thirteen days later, the Register carried another front-page photo. This time the shot was of a joyous Roger Stanton, the embattled Republican Board of Supervisors chairman, who was celebrating the dismissal of misconduct charges stemming from his role in the county's $1.64 billion bankruptcy. In the above-the-fold color photo, Stanton was embracing that same smiling man: Wylie Aitken.

The Santa Ana high-stakes plaintiff's attorney, who earns $375 per hour and has a predilection for civic and political activism, is everywhere these days. That is, everywhere there's a victory party. In addition to running his highly touted, four-attorney, civil-law firm, the 54-year-old simultaneously served as Stanton's personal legal counsel in the cantankerous courthouse battle with O.C. District Attorney Michael Capizzi and as chairman of Sanchez's historic, come-from-behind campaign against California's most notorious congressman. It may say something about Aitken's politics that both Stanton and Sanchez have switched political-party affiliation--though in opposite directions. Although he attributes his presence in the string of recent triumphs as "dumb luck," Aitken--who isn't without controversy--has evolved into one of Orange County's most formidable behind-the-scenes players.

"Wylie did a lot for me, but first I'd say he gave my candidacy credibility," Sanchez said. "He believed in me and sold me to the rest of the Democrats, who were somewhat leery of me at first. You have to remember that I'm a Republican turned Democrat."

"I really can't say enough about the guy," said John Shallman, a veteran campaign manager who lives in Los Angeles but directed Sanchez's day-to-day campaign operation. "He may not get the credit, but Orange County--particularly Orange County Democrats--should feel very lucky he is here."

But not everyone does. It is understandable that Aitken is not a favorite in GOP circles, but several prominent county Democrats--all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity--don't trust him either. Among the most common complaints from his detractors is that Aitken is a "limousine liberal" who is out of touch with grassroots activism that doesn't serve his ambitions. Along with real-estate developers Howard Adler and Richard O'Neill--two other top O.C. Democrats--Aitken is seen by some as more of a mouthpiece for megabusiness interests than traditional party causes.

"He is an elitist," said one Democrat who has known Aitken for years. "He's good at wine-and-cheese political gatherings, but you won't find him working in the trenches."

Two other longtime Democratic activists complained that Aitken--who chairs the Democratic Foundation of Orange County, a wealthy political-action committee--can and does doom candidates who are not personally responsive to him. Without his okay, they said, valuable election resources--mostly money--flow elsewhere. "There are those of us who believe Wylie is inadvertently part of the problem of why Democrats have done so miserably in local elections since the 1980s," one said.

Michael Farber, who, with the Democratic Party's blessing, ran against Dornan for the 46th Congressional District seat in 1994 and finished second to Sanchez in the 1996 primary, said such criticism of Aitken is unfair.

"I think Wylie has done a lot of good. Heck, you could say he's a kingmaker . . . no, a queenmaker," said Farber, who had Aitken's financial backing in 1994 but lost it to Sanchez in 1996. "The great thing about him is that he puts his money where his mouth is. Most of the people who complain about him are jealous of his importance and ability to get things done. Wylie is a heavyweight."

Whatever you think of Aitken, he presided over a miraculous event in this election: the consolidation of big Democratic money, frenzied grassroots activism and a decent candidate. Whether the unification was a fluke or the shape of things to come may be up to Aitken--who may, after all, decide that life as a fund-raiser is more entertaining than life as the guy who has to cobble together a working, competitive Democratic Party in Orange County.

Aitken is not a large man. He stands about 5-foot-8, but he has an undeniable presence. He was the first in his Irish Catholic family to attend college; he then went on to law school. He started practicing law in 1966 with a Santa Ana firm. At 35, he became the youngest president of the California Trial Lawyers Association and has served as an informal adviser to Senator Dianne Feinstein on her federal judicial-appointment recommendations to the president. ("People don't know it yet," Aitken said, "but Loretta and Senator Feinstein mirror each other in their styles and views.") As an indication of Aitken's status in statewide politics, Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis--acting as governor for six hours while Pete Wilson was out of the state--proclaimed March 2 "Wiley Aitken Day" in California. His resume shows that he has earned more than $41 million in favorable verdicts for his clients, many of whom have been wronged by negligent or fraudulent business practices. He would not be a welcome sight at an insurance-industry convention, but the feeling is mutual. In a recent case, Aitken won a $17 million judgment for a Santa Ana Heights couple who claimed that their insurance company tried to bilk them out of a fair settlement after a fire. He also successfully sued the county for $2.1 million in a high-profile, mountain-lion-mauling case involving a Lake Forest girl.

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