OC GOP's Apocalypse Now

The party's over for Republicans in Orange County and California

The answer to that depends, in part, on what happened in the Quirk-Silva race. According to Baugh, the local GOP wasn't in the lead position to aid Norby with financial resources or manage the effort. He claims he warned state party officials at least six weeks before the election that they could lose the seat.

"They sat on their hands for too long, and when they finally paid attention to the race, it was too late," he said. "There was complacency."

Though a startling mindset given the stakes, such a stance is somewhat explainable. Norby enjoyed the perks of incumbency (access to party resources and a sizable donor community), good public name recognition for his efforts to curb government eminent-domain abuses, better campaign experience from his years as a county supervisor and Fullerton councilman, and the loyal support of the popular Friends for Fullerton's Future blog. In the June primary election, he trounced Quirk-Silva by a whopping 18 percentage points.

Norby, who complained about public pensions, won the wrath of a cops’ union with this mailer
Norby, who complained about public pensions, won the wrath of a cops’ union with this mailer
Baugh: “The future of our party is not balding, fat, middle-aged, white guys”
Kevin Liu
Baugh: “The future of our party is not balding, fat, middle-aged, white guys”

But Norby also had behind-the-scene problems. "The Democrats took my race more seriously than the Republicans, and the public-employee unions outspent me three to one," he said, also blaming the local GOP of ignoring him for the presidential campaign and state propositions.

Several prominent, veteran California Republican officials explained reasons for the complacency but asked that their names not be used for this story in case Norby runs again and returns to Sacramento. Both basically said the same thing: Norby wasn't a team player and had unnecessarily alienated more than a few fellow Republicans.

"Chris has his good points," said one source who has known Norby for more than a decade. "But he also can be a weird, quirky guy whose personality is prickly. He didn't make a lot of friends up here, and I think there were some people in the party who didn't care if he returned. Party politics isn't always the most important factor. Sometimes, decisions are more personal."

*     *     *

Quirk-Silva walked into a Panera Bread shop near Cal State Fullerton on a recent Sunday morning, and even though she is a rising superstar in California Democratic Party politics, nobody recognized her. Unlike some politicians, her ego wasn't wounded. There's no time for pettiness. The thrill of entering the state Assembly is "like returning to college," she said. "I'm in a new chapter in my life. There is so much to learn. It's exciting."

Born in Los Angeles in 1962, Quirk-Silva has lived in Fullerton since she was 2 years old. The mother of four earned a bachelor's degree from UCLA and has taught elementary school for more than two decades. A "big believer in a liberal education that teaches students how to communicate," she displayed a sign in her classroom that underscored her mentality: "Ask questions." She says she is following that commandment as she enters her first term.

Her rise to power wasn't an overnight feat. After years of local political activism for policies such as the DREAM Act, she parlayed her networking into a 2004 seat on an otherwise all-Republican, all-male, all-white city council. She won re-election four years later and was named mayor in 2011.

Given there are 34 cities in Orange County, it's not surprising that Quirk-Silva spent the majority of her public life in relative obscurity. That changed 18 months ago, when Fullerton police beat to death Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, 36-year-old, homeless, schizophrenic man. Unlike three members (all older white males) of the council, Quirk-Silva and Republican councilman Bruce Whitaker refused to downplay the gruesome killing or ignore the signs of corruption and mismanagement within the police department. 

In early 2012, with the advice and encouragement of Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim), Quirk-Silva decided to challenge Norby, whom she saw as an ineffective representative more worried about libertarian, ideological pontifications than solving day-to-day problems for residents. She says that of about 90 bills Norby proposed, only two became laws. Last May, he won her scorn by labeling Title IX, a 1972 federal law mandating gender equality in college and high-school sports, as anti-male discrimination. Still, she knew she had an uphill battle.

"At first, nobody—not even Democrats—thought I had a chance to win," Quirk-Silva recalled.

Norby had a constituency. He told me he is proud of his three years in the legislature. He made "real difference in the abolition of redevelopment agencies—long a source of corporate-welfare and eminent-domain abuse." He wishes he could have done more to end the War on Drugs, which he calls "a costly war on people," and he noted his ideology is hardly out of touch. "Voluntary, consensual, nonviolent adult behavior of any kind should be decriminalized," Norby said.

But Quirk-Silva's campaign organizers made a critical, early gamble. They decided to save resources for the general election. The move wasn't without consequences. Immediately after the primary, some potential backers used her trouncing as reason to not contribute to a seemingly hopeless campaign. The law of unintended consequences also struck Norby. Donors were hesitant to give him contributions for the November contest because they didn't think he needed the money.

But, as campaign-finance disclosures at the California Secretary of State's office reveal, Quirk-Silva managed to outraise Norby at each pre-election reporting deadline. For example, from July 1 through Sept. 30, she raised $154,000; he raised $72,000. During the first 20 days of October, she collected $95,000—$64,000 more than he.

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