Drive-By Consultant

Frank Caternicchio runs the conservatives political campaigninto the ground

Photo by Jack GouldScott Steiner lost the June 5 Orange City Council election—by a whopping, humiliating 30 percentage points—for several reasons.

There were the revelations, backed by documents and reported in the legal newspaper Los Angeles Daily Journal, that Steiner, a deputy district attorney, allegedly used DA's office equipment for campaign purposes. There is the fact that Steiner's father is ethically challenged Bill Steiner, the former county supervisor who continued to raise and spend campaign contributions for three years after his 1995 pledge not to run for public office again.

And then there's the fact that his campaign was managed by Frank Caterinicchio.

Caterinicchio was the brains behind a last-minute Steiner mailer that displayed not only the bizarre, far, far right-wing thinking of Steiner's backers, but also their complete inability to take even the slightest criticism. It was also, as they like to say in political consulting, wildly off message.

The target of the mailer was not a candidate: Shirley Grindle, the good-government advocate who has spent the past few decades making a nuisance of herself by insisting that candidates and public officials adhere to the county's campaign-finance-disclosure regulations. In fact, Grindle was responsible for getting the regulations passed into law.

Caterinicchio's mailer, designed to mimic a supermarket tabloid and titled "THE ORANGE INQUIRER," folds out into a full-color "EXCLUSIVE" denunciation of Grindle's "Conspiracy to Take Over the Orange City Council." Cobbled together with phrases such as "Left-Wing Conspiracy," "liberal activist Shirley Grindle's 'gotcha' politics strategy" and "Shirley Grindle's liberal agenda," the mailer mentions Grindle 31 times; 23 times, her name is married to the title "liberal activist." The mailer also includes three color pictures of Grindle. By contrast, Steiner's actual opponent in the election—Republican Carolyn Cavecche—appears in the mailer a mere 18 times.

"I wasn't the one running for office," explained an incredulous Grindle. "I wasn't out there raising money to refute these charges. I wasn't out there with a platform to counteract this."

The mailer states matter-of-factly that "liberal activist Grindle has filed frivolous campaign-related lawsuits and complaints against conservative Republicans to generate negative publicity about them." Grindle has filed many, many complaints over the years and has forced many, many officials and candidates to adhere to the law, but she denies ever filing lawsuits against an official or candidate.

The last page of the mailer reprints an earlier letter sent out for Steiner over the signature of Kevin Rice, former president of the Orange chapter of the California Republican Assembly. One fact unmentioned in the mailer is that the current Orange chapter of the California Republican Assembly endorsed Cavecche—not Steiner—in the race.

The Rice letter urges "fellow" Republicans to reject the "smear campaign being waged by a left-wing conspiracy of liberal activists against Deputy District Attorney Scott Steiner, the GOP candidate for Orange City Council."

That letter also contains the curious statement that "liberal activist Grindle and company are currently waging campaigns of personal destruction against other Republican leaders including: Republican Party of Orange County Chairman Tom Fuentes and Second Vice Chairman Bob Zemel."

Fuentes didn't return repeated calls asking what that campaign might have been, and Zemel couldn't be reached for comment by press time. For her part, Grindle believes Fuentes is still sore over her comment in a March 10 Orange County Register story. She had said his filing of a South Orange County Community College District campaign statement five weeks late was "inexcusable." As for Zemel, it's true that Grindle criticized him for alleged conflicts of interest in his unsuccessful 1998 bid to become Anaheim's mayor, but that hardly constitutes a "current" campaign of anything.

Caterinicchio, Steiner's campaign manager, didn't return repeated phone calls concerning the mailer. But his anti-Grindle mailer fits a pattern. In 1987, Caterinicchio, a favorite consultant among the county's most conservative candidates, sent out a hit piece on Anaheim City Council candidate William Ehrle. That mailer said Ehrle suffered from "a permanent psychiatric disability that even he admits clouds his decision-making ability." While Ehrle had sought psychiatric care, he suffered from nothing so dramatic and easily won election. Ehrle's opponent and Caterinicchio's client in that race, Charlene LaClaire, didn't fare so well: she disappeared into political oblivion shortly after the race.

In fact, disappearing clients are a Caterinicchio pattern, too. Representing Zemel, Caterinicchio earned a twofer in 1998: Zemel lost not only to Tom Daly in the Anaheim mayor's race, but also to Lisa Hughes that same year in the GOP primary race to see who would get hammered by Democrat Loretta Sanchez in the 46th Congressional district. Caterinicchio also ran the high-profile 1994 Michael Huffington for U.S. Senate campaign, in which Huffington lost to Dianne Feinstein despite spending an unprecedented $28 million. And then there was Caterinicchio's client, former Irvine City Councilman Dave Baker. In 1988, Baker ran for Congress with Caterinicchio as manager, eventually losing to Chris Cox after admitting he'd forged a signature on an unauthorized transfer of funds into his campaign account from a charity. Bad luck? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's Caterinicchio's prospective clients who should seek psychiatric help.

 
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