Heads turned to watch as the expressionless, empty-handed executioner wearing a conservative, black, pinstriped suit walked unimpeded through an overflow crowd inside a ninth-floor ballroom at Knott’s Berry Farm Resort on the morning of March 6. The wily assassin, Michael J. Schroeder of Corona del Mar, knew what he was doing. Without spilling a drop of blood, he’d slain others in the past two decades—Linda Ackerman, Gil Ferguson, Mike Capizzi, Doris Allen, Mike Clesceri and Wally Wade, to name a few—and he’d always gotten off scot-free.
On this cool, rainy morning in Buena Park, Schroeder found his next victim: Meg Whitman, the wealthy businesswoman who’d come to the California Republican Assembly (CRA) convention to get an endorsement for her gubernatorial campaign. A Whitman victory was unacceptable to the Santa Ana insurance-company king, former chairman of the state GOP, red-wine connoisseur and powerful political nemesis to anyone who doesn’t share his brand of conservative ideology. He sees her as a RINO, or Republican In Name Only. In right-wing parlance, it’s a slightly less derogatory term than “commie.”
When Schroeder reached the podium to address the CRA convention, he grabbed the lectern with both hands, leaned into the microphone and—with a deep, steady voice—opened fire. His mission? To kill Whitman’s chances of grabbing the group’s endorsement. He reminded the audience that they had not backed Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose continual flip-flops, shameless self-promotion, lack of social conservatism and spousal choice all nauseate the CRA faithful.
“Boy, did we get that one right,” he said. “I’ve never voted for him or endorsed him.”
Schroeder, a onetime CRA president, added, “But the same list of people who told you it was fine to support Schwarzenegger are the same people who are now telling you it’s okay to back Meg Whitman.”
The line—a thinly veiled swipe at the likes of Congressman Ed Royce—won applause. Schroeder—who was Mike Carona’s unofficial consiglieri before the FBI and IRS arrested the then-sheriff for corruption—outlined what he sees as Whitman’s sins: She is against an old state proposition (187) that denies public benefits to noncitizens, supports anti-gun positions and in the recent past contributed campaign funds to Barbara Boxer.
This patriotic crowd—dominated by folks who could have fought in or tended Victory Gardens during World War II—booed loudly at the mention of the Democratic U.S. senator’s name. When the crowd hushed, Schroeder went for the kill: “Meg Whitman is going to be Arnold Schwarzenegger with a skirt!”
The room erupted. People jumped out of their seats with hearty cheers. Two gray-haired men in their 60s gave each other high-fives.
Calmly firing the coup de grace, Schroeder then sparked a new round of applause. “She has the nerve to show up here with her paid entourage,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many Democrats at a CRA convention!”
Somewhere, Ronald Reagan was smiling.
Schroeder walked back to his seat; folks came over to shake his hand or pat him on the shoulder.
Whitman continued to happily schmooze with supporters such as congressmen Royce and Darrell Issa. Her message: Nobody is going to be tougher on Democrats in the legislature to straighten out California’s messes. “I am the only candidate who will stand up to the unions and reduce the state’s work force by 40,000,” Whitman had declared before Schroeder’s knife-work. “I won’t take no for an answer when Sacramento forces push back.”
The crowd liked what it heard, so how would they react after hearing from Schroeder? After all, his choice, Steve Poizner, isn’t the ideal CRA candidate, either. Indeed, best I can tell, the ideal candidate for this group would be a mix of the Reverend Lou Sheldon, Dana Rohrabacher and, to add much-needed masculinity, Clint Eastwood’s gun-toting Dirty Harry character.
Whitman, no fool, made sure delegates knew Poizner had been a big Al Gore supporter; had given money to one of Boxer’s prior campaigns; and, something usually unforgivable for this crowd, asked for and received the support of Planned Parenthood in a past election.
To reduce concerns over Poizner’s baggage, Schroeder worked behind the scenes, shuffling delegates to private Q&A meetings with his candidate. Currently the state’s insurance commissioner, Poizner acknowledged he’s new to—but now basically committed to—the group’s traditional values. Many CRA members firmly believe that progressives are anti-God, anti-freedom, pro-criminal and secretly adhere to Marxism. One member, the Reverend Wiley Drake, stood in the back of the ballroom wearing a red T-shirt that read, “We’ll Remember in November.” He has co-written a country song to match the shirt. President Barack Obama doesn’t come off too well in the tune.
Also attending was Orly Taitz, the OC dentist leading a national effort to portray the nation’s first black president as a Manchurian candidate. Taitz wants to be the next secretary of state to prevent “election fraud” like the kind she believes put Obama in power. Some attendees rolled their eyes as she shouted her disjointed, extemporaneous speech into the microphone. She lost the endorsement to smooth-talking Damon Dunn, an ex-NFL player who slammed liberals by saying, “The government can be a safety net but not a trampoline!”
Amid this atmosphere, Poizner told delegates some time after Schroeder’s attack on his rival, “Every time I come here, I learn a lot.” He mocked Whitman for reading from prepared notes during her presentation.“She’s a loser!”
When CRA delegates voted the next day, they endorsed Poizner by a huge margin: 178 to 47—essentially the opposite of public-opinion polls, which significantly favor Whitman as the GOP nominee to face the likely Democratic nominee, Jerry Brown.
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But at least inside this Southern California amusement park in the shrinking heart of what used to be Reagan Country, Schroeder’s plan had worked. Poizner, who gave $10,000 to Gore’s 2000 election-recount fund against George W. Bush, now has the right wing’s seal of approval.
“Meg Whitman offends me,” Schroeder said. “She is a rich dilettante who wants the governorship as a souvenir, a monument to her own ego. There are a lot of things the super-rich can buy, but the endorsement of this organization was not for sale.”
This column appeared in print as "Anatomy of a Bloodless Execution: Is GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman really Arnold Schwarzenegger with a skirt?"