Outside the Orange County Democratic Party’s Aug. 28 Harry S. (they use the period) Truman awards dinner and under the watchful gaze of four Buena Park cops, protesters waved American and Arizona flags, shook placards denouncing President Barack Obama and U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi, and chanted slogans against U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.
“No more Boxer!” a crowd of about 40 Republicans and tea party folks repeatedly yelled in unison while carrying signs that read, “Stop illegal immigration,” “Where are the jobs?” and “Impeach Pelosi and [Senate majority leader Harry] Reid.” My favorite sign, though, was, “Reagan is alive!” With puzzling sincerity, the post-middle-aged white woman holding that placard screamed those words at me several times.
Other than one sign that seemed to have added Barney Frank’s name as an afterthought, the Massachusetts congressman who’d arrived to deliver the event’s keynote speech escaped the protesters’ ridicule. To them, Boxer was the primary villain wrecking America. If only they had known what was occurring inside the sold-out United Commercial Food Workers Local 324 banquet hall, they might have really freaked out.
Frank—arguably the most dominant congressman on financial legislation—sat at the honorary table with his male partner. Next to them was, based on the three serious, Secret Service-looking characters surrounding him, the most powerful person in the room: John A. Perez, the speaker of California’s state assembly. He’s openly gay, too. Nearby stood Gerrie Schipske, a lesbian and executive director of the OC Democratic Party. (Adding more than a whiff of heterosexuality were Loretta Sanchez, who expertly wore a tight-fitting burgundy dress, and OC Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro, whose rugged, bearded looks are reminiscent of the Most Interesting Man In the World from those Dos Equis commercials.)
But the sight of gay Americans playing prominent roles in politics would have made assassinated San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk proud—especially in Orange County, where, less than five miles from this site, Milk was booed and heckled during a 1978 debate over a Republican proposal to outlaw gay teachers in public schools.
My, how times have changed. On this night, it was Frank who mocked the right wing—and had the overwhelmingly straight crowd cheering. While the congressman thanked the “Democrats of Orange County for making the fight,” his partner discreetly walked to the stage, handed him a glass of water and returned to his table.
“That’s my partner,” said Frank, deviating from his remarks. “I know the fact that my partner, Jim, is here with me and brought me that water is considered to be a great threat to the social order by some.”
A day later, someone calling himself “anti-tyranny” left a comment on our website that included an anti-gay slur and a promise that the congressman would be killed if he returns to OC.
But on this night, the crowd repeatedly applauded Frank’s remarks, including this line: “I’ll try not to undermine marriage while I drink this [water].” A Laugh Factory comedian would die for the hoots and chuckles that ensued.
But Frank is hardly a comedian. His personality is, well, prickly. He doesn’t seem to like photographers much, which is odd for a veteran politician who has appeared on national television hundreds of times over the past three decades. At one point in the evening, he sent word that no more pictures were to be taken of him.
See video of Frank's speaking here.
Frank also apparently enjoys control. He’s worried that without active Democratic Party loyalists in places such as Orange County, the Republicans might take over Congress. Like Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” counterintuitive mantra, he’d come to impart his wisdom: Partisanship isn’t just good; it’s noble.
“One of the great mistakes people make today is to denigrate partisanship,” he said. “You never hear ‘partisan’ used in a favorable way. ‘Oh, she’s too partisan. Oh, he’s very partisan.’ . . . The differences in the two political parties are greater than they’ve ever been. . . . When Obama said he was going to be ‘post-partisan,’ I told his people that he was giving me post-partisan-depression.”
Frank instructed Democrats to revel in their partisanship because traitors and saboteurs run the other party—“a tightly controlled, ideological party closer to the extreme than any political party’s been in America. . . . We have seen on the part of the Republican Party a degree of conscious obstructionism [to Obama’s economic policies]. They are not just rooting for the failure of this recovery; they are working very hard to guarantee the failure of this recovery.”
Frank said local Democrats can help save the country.
“You [in Orange County] are the center of one of the most important election cycles we’ve had in America,” said Frank. “And the work that you do in this county . . . [can] counteract the assumption so many people have that this is going to be a slam-dunk for the Republicans. I’m confident as I talk to people tonight and listen to this degree of commitment and enthusiasm that that is not going to happen, and you are going to hold the line in a very important way.”
Holding the line means re-electing Sanchez, the lone Democrat in OC’s six-member congressional delegation. Frank hailed her as a “great member of Congress.” Hoping for a ninth term in office, Sanchez faces Republican state Assemblyman Van Tran. After twice battling her tough original 1996 incumbent opponent, Robert K. Dornan, the congresswoman—a prodigious fund-raiser and tireless campaigner who has risen to the top ranks on a Homeland Security committee in Washington, D.C.—has trampled over lackluster fifth-tier GOP challengers in every other election. It has been a conservative Democrat’s district, and in many ways, she is a proud, fiscally conservative blue dog.
Yet Sanchez can’t ignore Tran, probably her most viable opponent since Dornan. Republicans in the nation’s capital have made no secret they are eyeing the race and say they intend to supply Tran with valuable campaign resources. (On a weekly basis, GOP media strategists send reporters e-mails portraying Sanchez as a wild-spending, regulation-loving communist.) Add to the mix the resurgence of unapologetic conservatism across the nation, and it is no wonder pundits are predicting Republican challengers will knock off numerous Democratic incumbents this year. That Frank made a special, multi-day trip to campaign for Sanchez in OC underscores that possibility.
Despite all that, I’d been assuming Sanchez would win handily. Tran has glaring weaknesses, which include paper-thin, empty ideological speeches that could be uttered by a note-free fifth grader. He’s also more of a party robot than a leader.
But then Wylie Aitken—the RFK-loving, red-wine-sipping, wealthy trial lawyer who masterminded Sanchez’s historic upset of Dornan—got onstage at the Buena Park event and awoke me from my mental slumber.
“This is going to be a tough fight,” Aitken said without a hint of sarcasm. Polling may not be comforting the Sanchez campaign. The man who runs a small-but-potent Santa Ana law firm that routinely conquers multinational corporations in the courtroom paused for his next words to sink in.
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“We are in danger,” he intoned, “of losing Loretta Sanchez.”
This column appeared in print as "Do Democrats Fear a Loretta Sanchez Loss? Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank flies in to bolster the re-election hopes of OC’s lone Democrat in Congress."