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.

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."

Aitken may be losing his pal on the Board of Supervisors, but he's not worried about losing access to political power. When asked what it will be like to have the ear of a congresswoman, he corrected me. "I don't just have Loretta's ear; I also have a senator and a lieutenant governor's ears," he said with a smile.

Told of the comment, Shallman laughed and said: "I have said this before, but it's worth repeating: every campaign needs a Wylie Aitken. Believe me."

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