If Jeff LeTourneau decided to retire from politics today, his place in Orange County progressive history would not only be secure, but he'd also be one of its titans. The 56-year-old Chicago native has been in the trenches longer and harder than just about anyone, arriving in Buena Park in 1982 as a Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) man to try to organize Knott's Berry Farm workers, joining in the successful strike at the Disneyland Hotel in the late 1980s, fighting to humanize AIDS at a time when many county residents considered it a biblical plague, and reporting for duty for nearly every progressive campaign to hit OC in the past 30 years. And his most lasting legacy, of course, has been in the struggle for LGBT rights, a fight that has seen LeTourneau get beaten up by cops and conservative goons alike (most memorably, he was told, "Shut up, fag!" by the wife of then-congressman Bob Dornan during a town-hall meeting), while helping to transform the county from an intolerable place for homosexuals to a region where LGBT activism is more visible than ever.
But LeTourneau is not retiring—not even close. In a move that has sent ripples across the county, the ultimate grassroots activist is aiming for the ultimate position in establishment politics: He's running for chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County (DPOC), an unpaid role vested with the responsibility of strengthening the party in a place where it has played perpetual also-ran for decades and is facing a future of rising decline-to-state voters. And though LeTourneau faces an uphill battle—he's relatively late to campaigning and doesn't yet have the blessing of the Democratic establishment—he's running for the position because he feels the party has reached an advantageous point at which local Dems can strike at a vulnerable OC GOP (read my colleague R. Scott Moxley's cover story this week)—or, like Republicans, face eternal irrelevancy as Orange County demographics change.
"I was at a local Democratic Party gathering recently," LeTourneau said over coffee, briefcase in hand as he was ready to go to his day job at his self-owned, private-investigation firm. "The average age was 60-plus, and no more than 10 percent of the people in the room were non-white. Now, there's nothing wrong with those people—I'm an old, white guy myself. But they shouldn't be the only people in the room.
"At this one moment in time, there's an opportunity," LeTournea adds. "It no longer has to be the old ways only. We [at the DPOC] can take the best of those ways and infuse them with a swell of the new."
The Democratic Party does appear to be at the precipice of local success. Three members of Orange County's congressional delegation are Dems—Loretta Sanchez, her Los Angeles-based sister Linda, and Long Beach's Alan Lowenthal. Community volunteers and crucial help from establishment figures helped Sharon Quirk-Silva beat incumbent assemblyman Chris Norby in a victory that stunned California and gave Democrats the two-thirds supermajority needed to push virtually anything through the state Assembly. And the Democrats' percentage of OC voters is higher than it has been in memory, while the GOP's share is facing an electoral cliff.
But internally, the Democratic Party is a wreck. It has been headed since 2001 by Frank Barbaro, an attorney who constantly favored corporatist politicians at the expense of progressives, alienating a generation of potential candidates. This came to a standoff when Barbaro personally supported longtime friend and Santa Ana Mayor-for-Life Miguel Pulido in fall 2012's mayoral election while the party officially backed his opponent, David Benavides, after Barbaro asked Benavides to not seek the party's endorsement. And in a move that infuriated labor groups—long the financial lifeblood of the party—Barbaro pushed for the party endorsement of county Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly over labor activist Julio Perez in the spring primary for the 69th Assembly District; Daly won by a slim margin. The squabbling exasperated Barbaro, who stepped down in December, telling The Orange County Register "You've got the LGBTs, the labor unions, the environmentalists—they all have different agendas."
LeTourneau is diplomatic in talking about Barbaro, whom he credits for his ability "to get money to candidates when they need it." And he's also complimentary of his only competitor for the chairman spot: Henry Vandermeir of Ladera Ranch, the executive director of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County and a longtime political consultant. "Henry's good at the things that he does," LeTourneau allows, "but I have my plans and my experience here in the trenches."
He points to his impressive résumé: one of the founders of the Orange County Visibility League, a pioneer organization in the local fight for LGBT rights, there at the creation of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club and the local staging of OC's first National Coming Out Day celebration, a long involvement with the LGBT political-action committee ECCO, and a current seat on the advisory board of the Center Orange County.
"And I want to push the Republicans back to their rightful place," the feisty LeTourneau says. "They'll always have more money than us, but we can at least make it so they're not representing the majority of Orange County anymore."
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Barbaro, on the other hand, always made it a point to have dinner with GOP chairman Scott Baugh on election night.
Outside of party politics, whoever ends up replacing Barbaro has a formidable challenge in front of them. Besides the state senate, assembly and congressional districts that roughly cover Santa Ana, Anaheim, Fullerton and Garden Grove, as well as Santa Ana's city council and school board, the Democrats have failed miserably at recruiting viable candidates, as Republicans continue to hold the vast majority of elected positions in Orange County. Part of the problem, LeTourneau feels, is a lack of outreach by the Democratic Party outside its traditional constituencies. "Those groups that have stood on the outside, it's time to let them in and tell them, 'This isn't something that ignores you, but something that needs your voice,'" he says. As chairman, LeTourneau says, he'll push for standing committees "that have gender and racial equity. You're putting a face on the party that's reflective of the county as a whole, and now more people will be inspired to vote and run for office. It's not rocket science—it really isn't. It's just basic community organizing."
Democratic Party delegates for each assembly district will convene Jan. 28 at the Carpenter's Union Local 2361 Hall in Orange to vote for either Vandermeir or LeTourneau, and LeTourneau feels confident he'll claim victory. He'll spend the coming weeks meeting activists and bigwigs alike.
"We [the Democratic Party of Orange County leadership] can be a tool of reform that has never been seen before," LeTourneau concludes. "And now is the time."