Buzzing on the spectacle, longtime local Republican-party boss Tom Fuentes stood smiling on the VIP side of a police barricade at the county's Santa Ana government complex on the morning of April 19. And why not? A physically impressive group of badged men in dark blue uniforms (accessorized with trooper boots, billy clubs and automatic weapons) congregated to his left. Inches to Fuentes' right, a homogeneous battalion of young, all-male Republicans assumed what appeared a reflexive frat-party pose, occasionally looking outside their group to toss adolescent insults. One carried a sign that read, "Illegals register to vote here."
In Fuentes' foreground, hundreds of placard-toting protesters and counterprotesters faced off, some arguing angrily, others chanting slogans. Somewhere in the crowd, one of the GOP brats tried to orchestrate a public-relations coup by handing miniature Mexican flags to unsuspecting Latino citizens, many of whom carried "Get a job, Bob" placards. A serious-looking, white-suited man climbed a cement wall and began shouting about a Russian/Satan plot in local elections. Anticipating violence, riot cops on motorcycles waited across the street, revving their engines as they studied the crowd. A low-flying police helicopter swirled in endless circles overhead. The only thing missing was the sweet smell of napalm.
And, by day's end, former Congressman Robert K. Dornan--the man for whom the spectacle was held--still had to prove his charge that illegal aliens stole his seat on Capitol Hill.
Inside the heavily guarded hearing room, a circus--in the form of a congressional task force run not by a competent ringmaster but by partisan elephants--was setting up on the same stage where, four years earlier, five conservative Orange County Supervisors casually gambled away $1.64 billion. In resolving what is fast becoming the longest congressional campaign in history (Dornan vs. Sanchez I), would this room be the site of similar idiocy?
One glance around the hearing room provided a clue. Exchanging pre-fiasco handshakes, back patting and pleasantries stood the chipper cast of characters without whom this show would not have gone on: an ever-spiteful Dornan, Secretary of State Bill Jones, District Attorney Mike Capizzi, Registrar of Voters Ros Lever (Republicans all), and the Times Orange County's bow-tied reporter Peter Warren. None were wearing the appropriate circus tights, but then again, they were trying to feign seriousness.
As the opening ceremonies got under way in the big top, the stern-faced Republican in charge, Vern Ehlers (R-Michigan), assured the audience of his impartiality. We have come here to "cut through all the hearsay and get at the facts," he said. Yeah, chimed in junior Republican Robert Neys (R-Ohio), "We're not here for the emotional part." Cognizant of Dornan's proclivity for nothing but the emotional part, lone Democrat Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said he hoped his former colleague would use the hearing to finally put up or shut up about his dubious conspiracy theories on Loretta Sanchez's official 984-vote victory. Nice wish.
The first act was Jones', who remarkably spent less than one of his 11 minutes discussing the specifics of Dornan's claim. The rest was political posturing about how great he is as secretary of state. That much was revealed when Hoyer asked Jones how many of his alleged 303 illegal voters had become citizens prior to voting. The secretary, known for his loyalty to the GOP, said, "Just a second," turned to his staff as if dumbstruck by the question, and then said, "We don't have that breakdown at this time."
Next up was Capizzi, who talked about how great the government was behaving, how great his DA's office is, about "forefathers [who] fought in the Revolutionary War," about women getting the right to vote, about Martin Luther King Jr., about the ideal of citizen participation, and about "the very fabric of our Constitution." Only one of the 53 sentences he uttered dealt specifically with the number of possible illegal votes in the Dornan vs. Sanchez race, and even that was vague--"We surely have enough evidence at this juncture to report to you the electoral process has been compromised." Thanks for the detail, Mike. Good luck in your campaign to win the GOP nomination for attorney general.
By the end of the first session, Lever and the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Richard Rogers had also testified--in painfully monotoned bureaucratese. Still Dornan was not one vote closer to proving his case.
Every circus needs a clown, so after lunch came the man himself. Decked out in power tie and an expensive blue suit (whose shoulders were speckled with heavy dandruff), Dornan hobbled to the podium, dug into his raspy voice box for the voice of an exorcist, and told the task force they would be compelled to declare him the winner after hearing his evidence. Assigning as much weight as he could to his own importance, he described his defeat as nothing short of a "constitutional crisis."
As if to prove the ex-congressman's point, Dornan's legal team brought forth just two witnesses--a husband and wife who claimed a Latino (supposedly with previous connections to Sanchez) had asked the husband to vote even though he wasn't a citizen. He didn't vote.
The voter fraud tally remained idle.
Dornan's legal men weren't fazed--at least not outwardly. Like a punch-drunk boxer losing in the late rounds and hoping for a miracle TKO, his lawyers unveiled--to the disbelieving moans of the audience--that they knew of two other fraudulent voters: Loretta Sanchez and her husband, Stephen Brixey. Both, Dornan's attorneys dramatically claimed, lived outside the district in which they voted.
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Mike Schroeder, Dornan's lead attorney and head of the California Republican Party, told reporters afterward that his case was compelling. Walking the circus tightrope, he boldly stated under oath, "We've already documented the most extensive voter fraud in history (my emphasis)." But almost in the next breath, Schroeder made a startlingly contradictory admission, conceding the unspoken: that after six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars in investigations, their conspiracy allegations continue to rest on mere speculation. "Robert K. Dornan needs the opportunity to prove his case," said Schroeder, who pleaded with the other Republicans to withhold naming Dornan the loser.
As Dornan and members of his extended family sat in the front row making snide remarks or contemptuous noises, freshman Congresswoman Sanchez told the panel her opponent's case is "composed primarily of distortions, falsehoods, rumor and innuendo." Then her lawyer, Wylie Aitken--who also heads the local Democratic Foundation--laid out the indisputable facts that completely debunk Dornan's case. Even the Times acknowledged as much. Having advanced Dornan's self-serving claims as fact since November, the Times has only recently told its readers what the paper has known--or should have known--six months ago: that Dornan's claims are "overstated and riddled with inaccuracies." Welcome aboard, Times O.C. Nor is that news to local Republicans, who privately admit that Dornan has no case and that they can milk the controversy politically.
Nevertheless, after the big top closed, Ehlers was surrounded by reporters. He paused momentarily--perhaps to muster up as much sincerity as he could--and reported that Dornan had made a strong enough case to continue his fishing expedition.
Outside amid the protesters were seven white women who had been bussed in by Fuentes and the Orange County Republican Party. While the others looked on, nodding their heads and offering frequent "amens" or "uh-huhs," one of the flock spoke: "I just don't understand why people don't want Dornan as our congressman. He's a God-fearing man. He's an American. I ask people, what did he do that is so wrong? And they say, 'Well, he's a bigot.' But, you know, I don't believe any of their so-called evidence. I think they're mad because Bob speaks his mind, and isn't that just great?" A heavyset women wearing a polyester pantsuit and a construction helmet--and holding a sign that read, "Voter Fraud Sucks"--added: "You're right. This is all about the American way. If they get California and Texas, then they will destroy us."