The Dems' Wine-and-Cheese Whiz

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

We recently met at about dusk in his plush, top-floor, corner office off the 55 freeway and MacArthur Boulevard. Sitting in a blue-leather chair behind a cherry-wood desk, the usually natty Aitken was tieless, and his starched shirt collar was unbuttoned. A sizable impressionistic painting of Jack, Bobby and Ted Kennedy adorns the wall to the left of his desk. The room is furnished in deep colors, much like an Ethan Allen showcase but more comfortable. A few drops of wine remained in the bottom of a single glass standing on the stocked minibar counter. Mounds of resumes from people hoping to join Sanchez's congressional staff awaited his perusal. He smiled and laughed with ease, energetically answering every question. It was not uncommon for him to rephrase an initial answer with slightly different, livelier words.

Asked if he thought the juxtaposition of being photographed one day hugging a major Democratic figure and shortly thereafter hugging a Republican politician, the Detroit native, whose family moved to Garden Grove in 1955, started to answer but then briefly stopped to consider his response.

"I'm a difficult person to label," he said. "I really don't find labels useful. Some Democrats are suspicious because of my monetary success. . . . I came from a modest-to-poor background. I'm sure some people ask, 'Is this a person I can trust?' The answer is, 'Yes, they can.'

"As for my relationships with Loretta Sanchez and Roger Stanton, they are both my friends," Aitken added. "Roger and I knew each other for years before he switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Loretta was introduced to me in 1994 by [Anaheim Mayor] Tom Daly, and I've liked her ever since. Despite their labels, Roger and Loretta are both centrists politically, and I am probably more progressive than either of them."

Although he said Orange County Republicans have tried to entice him into switching his party affiliation over the years, Aitken described himself as a "truly committed Democrat." He readily names Robert F. Kennedy as his political hero and soberly recounts that he and his wife, Bette, were at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968 when the presidential candidate was shot to death. Aitken would have been a Kennedy delegate at the Chicago convention that year. "After the assassination, I drifted away from politics for a while," he said. Of all the local elections he has participated in over the past three decades, he said, the Sanchez-Dornan race rejuvenated him: "This was the first time since 1968 that I felt the real excitement again."

With almost everyone grabbing credit for Sanchez's narrow, 984-vote margin over Dornan, those familiar with the campaign are adamant that no one--besides Sanchez--had a more important role than Aitken. It was his job to oversee the campaign's fund-raising, the key to whether Sanchez could communicate her positions to voters. That she is the first opponent in 20 years to outspend Dornan speaks to Aitken's effectiveness. According to disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C., Sanchez spent about $130,000 more than Dornan, who spent $668,000. The money allowed Sanchez to send about 20 mailers to voters, hire a professional political staff, and run groundbreaking cable-TV advertising during the six weeks leading up to the election.

"At the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Wylie was a major help. He introduced me to people like [House Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt and the big donors who were there," said Sanchez, who remembered receiving more than $100,000 in pledges during that week. "Wylie had the invitations to all the parties, so the two of us would go and try to convince them that I had a chance against Dornan. And it worked."

Not to be overshadowed by his involvement in Sanchez's win is Aitken's county-paid defense of Stanton (at the reduced rate of $295 an hour) in the heated battle over the DA's attempts to prosecute the supervisor for alleged wrongdoing related to the county bankruptcy. From Capizzi's perspective, Stanton and Supervisor William Steiner--the only board members left from the bankruptcy--needed to be punished for the financial collapse, and he has vigorously pursued them during the past two years.

Other than indicted Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach)--who are upset about an unrelated election matter--it's fair to say that no one has been more bitingly critical of Capizzi, a Republican, than Aitken. Since the DA filed his case, the Register and the L.A. Times have reported Aitken's blistering remarks, including calling his courtroom opponent "shameless." Aitken has vociferously maintained the case was meritless and described Capizzi's actions in pure Machiavellian terms as "a desperate attempt to salvage a political career." Last month, when a Los Angeles judge threw out Capizzi's case against the supervisors, Aitken was there to say, "I told you so." Stanton, who did not seek re-election to the board and may teach at Cal State Long Beach in the future, has nothing but praise for his lawyer and close friend.

"I've been stabbed in the back and chest by some people--particularly those who I thought were friends--but Wylie is loyal and decent," he said. "He has been a real comfort to me and my family during Capizzi's stone throwing."

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