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You could spot one National Rifle Association jacket, two camouflage-print baseball caps, a dozen bald spots and couple of smart alecks in the 60-person audience at April 12’s meeting of a group called South Orange County 912. At the front of the room, Megan Barth—a stiletto-wearing thirtysomething in business-casual black and blond Joan Jett bangs—was telling the crowd about the anti-big-government “tea party” rally that would be held in three days at a local Nissan dealership. There was some confusion, though, about whether it was in Irvine or in Lake Forest.
“It’s by the freeway, where all the government auto dealers are,” came a crack from the back of the room, bringing guffaws.
Then Barth mentioned a tea party rally planned for Santa Ana, at which OC Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh was scheduled to speak. That elicited a round of boos. Barth batted her eyelashes and put on a wide smile. She didn’t have to say much. For this crowd—tea partiers affiliated with Glenn Beck’s “9.12” movement, which seeks to remind the country of how it felt on the day after Sept. 11, 2001—Baugh’s name stands for much of what they believe is wrong with the country: incumbency and cronyism.
Barth is running for a seat on the Orange County Republican Party’s Central Committee, as are about a half-dozen of the people who were at the meeting that night. In past years, central committee races have been relatively sleepy affairs. Each of Orange County’s nine state Assembly districts has six seats to be filled every primary election; in South County’s 73nd district, seven people ran in 2008. This year, there are 14 contenders in that district—many of whom are newcomers swept into politics by the tea party movement. A win for them in districts countywide in the June elections could mean big changes for Orange County’s dominant political party.
Just by showing up to central committee meetings, the tea party already seems to be affecting the dynamics of the OC GOP. At the Republicans’ April 19 gathering, in a gold-hued ballroom at the Irvine Regency Hyatt, some of the same faces from the South Orange County 912 meeting could be seen, once again, booing. This time, the offense was an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the party to endorse OC sheriff candidate Craig Hunter in his run against incumbent Sandra Hutchens and tea-party favorite Bill Hunt.
Before the meeting, tea partiers had presented committee members with letters asking them to review the party’s financial records. The county GOP’s bylaws require that the treasurer ask a Certified Public Accountant to review its books and make a report to the central committee every two years. It has been at least three years since that last happened, though. In his opening remarks, Baugh tossed off a few lines about central committee members being welcome to view the party’s financial records any time they wanted.
The chairman acknowledges that treasurer Mark Bucher has let the CPA rule slip, but he says it was an honest mistake. When it was brought to his attention, Baugh says, he asked Bucher and others to initiate the process. “I can’t say I know the motives,” Baugh says of those asking, “but there’s nothing that’s secret in our books.”
The operation was orchestrated in large part by David Smithey, a 50-year-old Laguna Niguel software consultant who swore off politics after a discouraging experience in the early 1990s, only to be lured back in by recent bailouts and the energy of the tea party movement. He’d approached the OC GOP to get involved a few months ago, he says, but found it unwelcoming. Then he got to know its history, including the fact that many local party leaders had supported Sheriff Mike Carona up until the time he was indicted on corruption charges. The OC GOP, in terms familiar to Smithey’s occupation, seemed “buggy,” he says. So he started coding a fix. The committee’s own rules seemed like a good place to start.
“If that bylaw is violated,” Smithey says, referring to the provision about regular financial reviews, “it [invites] the question: ‘What other bylaws are being violated?’”
Smithey isn’t the only tea partier who felt alienated once he started to take a close look at county politics. Barth, after helping to organize tea parties in 2009, was approached by Irvine Republicans and asked to run for mayor of that city. She says she spent months “exploring” the possibility and came away feeling uneasy about whether she could count on the OC GOP. After a photo surfaced showing Michelle Steel, a Republican member of the state’s Board of Equalization, posing with Democratic Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, Barth was shaken.
“That was a big stab in the back to the city of Irvine,” Barth says. “And yet [Steel] is still very much supported by the establishment within the GOP.”