Party Crashers

Republicans trash their own in battle for control of the county GOP

Photo by Johan VogelFor Thomas A. Fuentes, thescene at the California Republican Party's ill-named election night 1998 "victory" party at the Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach wasn't pretty. The longtime chairman of the Orange County GOP watched as his party's candidates—from governor to dogcatcher—suffered unprecedented humiliating losses. Even that collapse may not have been the worst of it. Bitter, defeated ex-Congressman Bob Dornan ignored Fuentes' repeated pleas to end his rambling I-lost-but-I-really-won-because-my-Democratic-opponent-is-a-slut "concession" speech that was broadcast to a statewide audience. One of Dornan's daughters and her guest provoked a wild fistfight with Asian-American supporters of unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong—in front of the press pool, no less. Another of Dornan's offspring, Bobby Jr., guzzled beer and verbally accosted a backpedaling Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Elsewhere, red-eyed white Republican youth circled, shoved and screamed racial epithets at a startled black Channel 9 news cameraman.

Throughout this night of ugliness, Fuentes somehow kept his dignity, greeting all comers with a smile and warm handshake. It was enough to make even a liberal sympathetic.

Under normal circumstances, it would not be easy to feel anything but contempt for Fuentes and his particular brand of politics—unless, that is, you are a die-hard social right-winger. Like Dornan, he enthusiastically spews a highly combustible and uncompromising hard-line Catholic, anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay dogma.

Fuentes has been especially weird on race and ethnicity. Though 15 years ago he became the first Latino to take the local party's top spot, he has proved closer to certifiable bigots like the Reverend Lou Sheldon or Reagan-era immigration director Harold Ezell—who, until his death in 1998, was the party's most vociferous anti-Latino. Fuentes was chief when, in 1988, his operatives hired "poll guards" to intimidate would-be Latino-American voters in Santa Ana. Nor does it help that numerous women in the party view him as decidedly chauvinistic.

With a whopping 200,000-plus local Republican voter-registration advantage, Fuentes has frequently exhibited the subtlety of a pissed-off drag queen. He once told a reporter that he could drive through any neighborhood and find the Democrats. They'd be the ones, he snorted, with the unmowed lawns and the dilapidated cars in the driveway.

Ironically, the perpetually natty Fuentes nowadays has lost some of his nouveau riche arrogance. On March 7, the 51-year-old Lake Forest resident will face his strongest challenge yet as party boss. The party's moneyed—and more moderate—wing wants him out.

Late last year, those moderates formed the New Majority Committee, which is open to any Joe who can pony up an annual contribution of at least $10,000. So far, the group has reportedly raised more than $500,000. With the help of another anti-Fuentes GOP group called Republicans for New Directions, the businessmen plan to run a slate of candidates for the party's powerful central committee. Currently, only 11 of the committee's 60 members support a coup.

"[New Majority] is a group that believes Republicans should have a more mainstream approach than the far right-wing position that is in existence," founding New Majority member Lawrence Higby recently told The Orange County Register. "We're trying to expand the party."

Higby—once chief assistant to Nixon hatchetman H.R. Haldeman and president of the Orange County edition of the LA Times—certainly knows how to give a good soundbite, but Fuentes has another, more cynical view. He claims the Irvine Co., Orange County's largest and most politically powerful Republican land developer, is behind the uprising. "[Theirs] is a corporate agenda that's self-serving," he told the Reg (he refuses to speak on the record with the Weekly). "We know that their specific agenda, directed by the Irvine Co., is to moderate the Republican Party."

"Moderate" may not be the right word; "corporatize" would have been better. According to Fuentes, the Irvine Co. is eager to see the party support March 7's Proposition 26. That initiative would reduce from two-thirds to one-half the number of voters required to raise local school taxes.

Why would the Republicans at Irvine Co. headquarters want to see higher taxes? Because public spending on such expensive infrastructure projects as new roads is vital to the financial success of private commercial and residential developments. The Irvine Co., a great beneficiary of public entitlements, knows that it is much more likely to persuade half of all voters to approve a tax increase than two-thirds.

Fuentes does not support Prop. 26. No surprise there: he strenuously opposed Measure R, the 1995 Irvine Co.-backed proposal to jack up the local sales tax by a half-cent following the 1994 county bankruptcy. Of Prop. 26, Fuentes says the Irvine Co. wants "to remove the two-thirds majority [law] so that infrastructure for the developers can be paid for by taxpayers."

And for the second time in recent memory, we find ourselves reluctantly viewing Fuentes sympathetically. The developers—men like Irvine Co. chairman Don Bren, his lieutenant Gary Hunt, and William Lyon and George Argyros —have cleverly targeted the chairman's biggest public-relations weakness: party inclusiveness. But the truth is that the businessmen couldn't care less about opening the party to minorities and women.

"This isn't at all about the pro-choice stuff or any of the other social issues," said one high-ranking Orange County Republican. "It's simply about money. Look, they [the backers of New Majority] haven't supported minority candidates any more than anyone else in the party. This is nothing more than a bunch of wealthy white guys who want to take over. Tom is just in the way."

While it's entertaining enough to hear of the developers' newfound interest in liberal social issues, it's just as amusing to hear the Fuentes crowd talking trash about the rich. Consider Hugh Hewitt—white, wealthy Newport Beach lawyer and Fuentes ally—labeling the New Majority Committee "a bunch of rich, white guys" whom he immediately and derisively pegged RWGs.

If Republicans are lucky, Fuentes will prevail in his battle with the RWGs. But even if Fuentes loses, we shall all be richer for the humor.

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