Let's say, just as a fer-instance, that you're one of those people who can't stand the way presidential campaigns are financed in this country. McCain-Feingold doesn't go nearly far enough! you huff. Money is not speech! you grouse. Why, it turns the most important political race in the United States into a game of crass money-grubbing!
Well, you're right. It's crass, it's undignified, it's just plain weird. And when the Weekly first decided to do a special election feature about the money the candidates had raised here, timed a couple of weeks before the Feb. 5 California primary, we thought we were going to make it all about the money and let the ridiculous dollar figures—mostly on the GOP side—sort of speak for themselves.
A couple of things changed our minds. First, the numbers we've got right now—thanks to the good folks at the Center for Responsive Politics—though huge (more than $4.6 million), are out of date. The last mandatory disclosure forms were filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) at the end of October; the next won't be available until the end of this month, right before the primary. So these figures don't reflect things like Huckabee's Iowa win making him the darling of the Christian Right, Obama's Iowa win turning the Dem side into a two-person race, and McCain's victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Second, as we looked over the names of the big individual local donors (candidates only need to disclose the names of those who donate $200 or more), we were intrigued by the mix of familiar and obscure names, and we decided to build our story around them. Who the hell are these people, and why did they decide to pay up when the little metal elephant (or donkey) landed on their property?
Some of them blew us off, but enough answered to offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of OC's political players. So grab your top hat and cane, and join us for a spin around the board of what remains (housing crisis notwithstanding) some of the richest political real estate in the country.
HELP YOURSELF TO OUR COMMUNITY CHEST
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $799,459
It's no secret that real-estate mogul Don Bren and his Irvine Co. have carte blanche when it comes to the lay of OC's land (develop, develop, develop). Bren is the richest real-estate developer in the country, responsible, basically, for the way Orange County looks (suburban grids planned down to their last squirrel). Last year, 30 years after Bren purchased the the Irvine Co. with other investors, Forbes estimated that Bren is worth about $13 billion. Such heft has made Bren one of the mightiest wielders of influence when it comes to politics, presidential and otherwise. The billionaire has given millions to conservative Republican candidates over the years and is known for swaying political battles by mere affiliation. In this year's presidential cycle, his golden touch landed on John McCain. The Irvine Co. made the top-10-highest-contributors list for McCain's campaign, with a whopping $68,400 in $200-and-higher donations by nearly two dozen employees as of the end of October 2007. The donations put the company up there with such other hefty McCain donors as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Univision. But the donations haven't all gone to McCain: one employee gave to Giuliani, and another (soon-to-be-former?) employee chipped in to Barack Obama's campaign.
Although George Argyros' heft is more literal than it is fiscal, he's a formidable OC political player nonetheless. The Newport Beach businessman, developer, millionaire (bordering on billionaire) and infamous U.S. Ambassador to Madrid has decided to help pay for gas on the Straight Talk Express. Argyros and his wife have each donated the maximum individual contribution of $4,600 to McCain's primary and general-election campaigns. Argyros is also a co-chairman for McCain's national finance committee—which seems to make sense, as Argyros raised $30 million for the candidate's 2000 presidential campaign as head fund-raiser for the California Republican Party. But around the same time Argyros was raising money for McCain's presidential run, his apartment company, Arnel Management Co., was investigated by the Orange County DA's office on charges that he defrauded thousands of poor renters who lived in his apartments. Arnel later paid $1.5 million in fines, admitting no guilt; Argyros' name was dropped from the state's civil suit.
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $1,017,088
Rudy supporters will tell you that sandbagging Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina was all strategy, baby, because Giuliani has his eyes on the big trophies: Florida, New York, New Jersey and California. With big wins in those states, he could still snag the nomination.
Big support from the Republican donor base in Orange County has been part of the Giuliani master plan all along. He has been visiting frequently for more than a year and, from the department of "it seemed like a good idea at the time," even gained the support of America's Most Indicted (Former) Sheriff Mike Carona.
A look into Captain 9/11's campaign contributors list shows a bevy of Orange County corporate executives and real-estate developers, several of whom did not return phone calls from the Weekly.
Giuliani's top big-money donors are Irvine's John and Robin McMonigle, with $9,200 so far, the most they could legally contribute as of October. John, according to several fawning articles written about him in The Orange County Register, has been Coldwell Banker's top real-estate broker for the past three years; Robin declared her occupation as a "homemaker" in her FEC filings and can be seen at high-profile charity fund-raisers looking sharp. Not only do the McMonigles live in the exclusive Shady Acres area of Irvine, but they're also young, healthy and attractive enough to enjoy it, which probably explains why they didn't call us back, either.
Also of note: infamous obstetrician and Los Alamitos Race Course owner Edward Allred, who gave $2,300. Allred, as the Weekly uncovered in the late '90s, performed abortions in his practice—and has a history of giving fistloads of cash to anti-abortion candidates. Giuliani, of course, is pro-choice, but John McCain, to whom Allred also gave $2,300, is not. Weird.
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $1,274,195
It wasn't a good 2007 for Corinthian Colleges, the Santa Ana-based company that operates a slew of diploma mills across the United States and Canada. That year alone, it weathered an October subpoena by federal agents and settled a $6.5 million lawsuit after former students claimed Corinthian exaggerated the number of people it placed in high-salary jobs. But that didn't stop Corinthian bigwigs from contributing mightily to Romney's campaign. CEO Jack David Massimo chipped in $2,300, as did COO Peter Waller, senior vice president Stan Mortensen, executive vice president Mark Pelesh, president of online learning David Poldoian and founder David G. Moore, who resigned in November as CEO. Moore got the Corinthian Romney love fest started in 2006, when he contributed $9,000 to a Romney-controlled political-action committee and $2,300 to his presidential campaign. None of these men was available for an interview or statement, according to a spokesperson, because they were busy finishing their 2007 fourth-quarter reports.
With the kids of the Irvine Co.'s Don Bren suing the poor sap for millions in child support and our other lords spawning fools for children, the closest thing Orange County has to the Rockefellers is the Makarechians. Daddy Hadi runs Capital Pacific Holdings, a mega-developer whose penchant for building ostentatious mansions on coastlines inspired the term "McMansion" (or so his company bio proudly states). Hadi's son Paul created the Xanadu known as the St. Regis in Dana Point before he was 30, while Cyrus proudly plays GOB Bluth to Paul's Michael at Makar Properties. The family is at the top of nouveau riche Orange County conservatives, as Hadi and his wife, Barbara, were members of the New Majority, which effectively castrated the old fire-breathing guard of the GOP, while Paul founded Generation Next, the Cub Scouts version of the New Majority. The four Makarechians each gave Romney $2,300 and are major reasons why Romney is Orange County's top money maker among big donors as of October. (He also has the support of many local party bosses, from Mike Schroeder to Scott Baugh and yacker Hugh Hewitt). As of press time, the Makarechians were too busy swimming in their money pool to give the Weekly a statement.
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $757,543
A Newport Beach doctor specializing in physical medicine, pain management and sports rehabilitation, Dr. L. Scott Stoney of California Rehabilitation Inc. apparently exceeded contribution limits to give Clinton $11,500, according to the FEC. (He was good enough to speak to us, but that was before we'd spotted this discrepancy; he didn't return subsequent calls for an explanation.) Stoney is no stranger to breaking the rules, though: His license was revoked in 2002 because of accusations of gross negligence, repeated negligence and incompetence, but a stay was granted, and he was instead placed on a 10-year probation. "I can't hide from what happened, but we learn from our mistakes," Stoney says. "I hope to be a better person in the future." Not surprisingly, Stoney's for Hillary because of her health-care plan. "I want more health care for Americans," he says. "I'm not happy with people being uninsured in America, and in what I see in the political landscape, at this point, she's supporting more of a global health-care policy to insure more Americans," he says. "I would like to see more of a change in health care, but it's at least a first step."
At UC Irvine, you can't miss the Newkirk name: Martha has a Center for Science and Society named after her, not to mention a fellowship endowment, while hubby James has a two-story pavilion named for himself inside Anteater Ballpark. Although Mrs. Newkirk clearly likes her name to be in the public eye, she doesn't seem to want any information about herself out there.
Leslie Millerd at UCI student affairs describes Martha—who, like Stoney, appears to have exceeded contribution limits to give Clinton $9,200—and her husband as "very private people." Those who know them won't talk, and those who'll talk don't know them. The Weekly even tried to obtain a transcript of a 2000 commencement address given by Mrs. Newkirk, only to be told that none exists. We made a request for an official, press-release-type biography for her from Newkirk Center director Joe DiMento and were told nothing like that exists, either. Here's what we do know: She's the president of Newkirk Enterprises in Laguna Beach, a former University of California Regent and recipient of the 1993 UCI Medal, the university's highest honor. She graduated in 1972, got her M.A. in '76, her Ph.D. in '81. She's a contributor to the American Academy of Pediatrics' Project Vietnam and has been a participant in Buzz, an executive women's think tank. Her UCI center is intended "to address science's potential and actual contributions to society, such as policy, decision making and taking action." Apparently this doesn't extend to publicly discussing her own potential and actual contributions to society. DiMento told the Weekly that Newkirk is "not interested" in discussing her apparently oversized contribution, though he added, "I like your paper a lot."
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $339,620
Linda Wirta credits Obama for bringing together her "divided family." The medical researcher, homemaker and lifelong Democrat convinced her husband, David, a longtime OC Republican, to switch his party affiliation so that he could vote for Obama in the California Primary. The couple personally contributed $5,300 to the Obama campaign. "Barack has the Republican vote in his home state; I feel like we've been divided for so long," Wirta says. "Clinton just brings more division, and we need unity to move forward in the world. He's the kind of person that can do that." Wirta, who lives in Newport Coast, was introduced to—and instantly smitten with—Obama months before he announced his bid for the presidency. When a friend told her about the senator in October 2006, Wirta began her research. "I stayed up all night reading about him because he just seemed fantastic," she says. "I remember e-mailing [my friend] and asking if [Obama] was going to run for president." As soon as he announced his bid, Wirta slapped an Obama bumper sticker on her car and became one of the most active supporters in his Orange County campaign. In June 2007, Wirta co-hosted an early fund-raiser that took in, she says, "a couple of hundred thousand dollars." She says Obama has raised well more than the $339,000 reported in late October by the FEC. She and her teenage daughter are both precinct captains, and Wirta plans to host another fund-raiser for Obama after the Feb. 5 primaries. "He's different," she says. "He's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Mohnish Pabrai says this of his $4,600 in contributions to Obama: "I wish I could give him a lot more, but we have to adhere to campaign-finance rules." The Irvine-based hedge-fund manager and self-professed disciple of Warren Buffet adds, "By a long shot, he's the best person to be president." Pabrai has been lauded for being a prescient investor who knows how to invest quietly and successfully; he shares some of his tricks in his book The Dhando Investor, which is being translated into five languages. In a Forbes article from 2004, Pabrai was noted for keeping his distance from Wall Street: "He buys no research and has no hired help. If he can't understand a company, he doesn't buy the stock." Pabrai says he's told the Obama campaign he'll do anything he can to help. The former Chicago-area resident says he first heard about Obama from a professor friend at Northwestern University when Obama was first running in Illinois. "He was very much an underdog at this time," he says, but Pabrai has watched him and followed him over the years. "I don't consider myself a Democrat or a Republican, neither does my wife," he says. "We both focus on the person. We always try to look at the person, not the party. We voted for Arnold. Even in this race, I've looked at everyone. . . . But across the board, Obama is the best candidate."
STILL A CHANCE?
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $221,806
Not surprisingly, given Edwards' career as an aggressive trial lawyer who has made millions going after corporations with medical-malpractice lawsuits, a lot of Edwards' OC donations came from his fellow ambulance chasers. One of the more interesting attorneys who didn't return our telephone calls is John C. Hueston, a Newport Beach-based lawyer and former U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Enron after making a name for himself as the guy who successfully brought down corrupt Santa Ana city councilman Ted Moreno. Hueston donated $3,300.
The most high-profile corporate-bashing attorney who did call us back is Frank Barbaro, a Laguna Beach-based attorney and chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. Barbaro recently won a $3.2 million judgment against Kaiser Permanente on behalf of the family of an infant who will suffer lifelong brain damage because of the HMO's failure to perform a cesarean section during childbirth, resulting in a lack of oxygen to the girl's brain. He gave Edwards $2,300 last March, the maximum allowable contribution for the primary. His friend Wylie Aitken, another prominent Democratic activist and trial lawyer, happens to run Edwards' campaign in Orange County. Last October, Barbaro and Aitken hosted a fund-raising dinner at the Disneyland Hotel that featured a rousing speech by Edwards. The event drew 1,100 guests and raised what Barbaro described as a "ton of money" for the candidate.
Barbaro wouldn't say who he's voting for. He not only gave the most cash legally allowable to Edwards, but he also maxed out with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and he gave a smaller amount to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who recently dropped out of the race. But, Barbaro says, he has a special fondness for Edwards because of his anti-corporate views. "We need to do something about the all-you-can-eat corporate buffet that's being served up in Washington," he says. "That, to me, is the single most important position [Edwards] has."
Barbaro says he'd also be happy with either Obama or Clinton in the White House. "This is truly exciting," he says. "Especially when you consider the crap the Republicans have for candidates. . . . If this is all they have, they're in trouble."
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $125,944
Still a chance? No.
Real-estate developer Hagop Sargisian sure can pick 'em. As the founder and owner of companies HDS Group Inc. and CDM&C Inc., Sargisian has been responsible for more than $500 million worth of development and construction in California during his 28-year career. In 2006, he contributed $6,800 of his riches to Republican candidate Bill Morrow's campaign for California's 50th Congressional District. Morrow lost to former representative Brian Bilbray.
While Sargisian could not be reached for comment, FEC records show that he, together with his wife, Diane, donated a total of $6,900 to Thompson's presidential campaign as of October—a campaign that came to a merciful end the day we sent this issue to the printer.
Sargisian also sits on the board of directors for Christian Associates International, a world-wide nonprofit devoted to the idea that Christianity can become a grassroots movement and that God can work powerfully to reach and save the "lost people" of the world.
While the Sargisians' motivations remain a mystery, Sandra and Morgan Davis of Newport Coast flat-out love Thompson. They love him so much that they collectively donated $6,900 to his campaign and helped organize a fund-raiser that brought in nearly $100,000 for the actor/former senator. Morgan is a retired property- and casualty-insurance businessman who now, along with his wife, a retired pastor, sits on the boards of two charities dedicated to fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
"See, Giuliani isn't really a Republican," Morgan explained some days before Thompson bowed out. "McCain is too old, and Romney is a flip-flopper. When I heard Thompson was running, I thought he was a better candidate. . . . Plus, my wife is from Tennessee, so that helps."
Of course, Morgan Davis also donated $2,300 to Giuliani's campaign last year just so he could "cover all the Republican bases."
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $65,905
The Texas congressman did better money-wise in OC than many of his competitors, and among the reasons for that is Allan Bartlett, whose Powder Blue Report blog routinely roasts Orange County's political pigs. A libertarian like Paul, Bartlett hunts for hypocrites on the Left and Right, including Larry Agran, ruler of a duplicitous Irvine Democratic machine, and indicted former sheriff Carona, a conservative only during election seasons. It's no surprise Bartlett backs Paul's long-shot candidacy to the tune of $2,250. Fox News recently angered Bartlett when it blocked Paul, the most anti-Iraq War candidate running in either major party, from appearing on a nationally televised debate; "You guys are a joke of a network and getting worse by the day," he wrote on his blog. But thanks to Jay Leno, who flew Paul to NBC studios for an appearance on The Tonight Show, Bartlett got the last laugh on Fox. "Ain't blowback a bitch?" he wrote. "Ron hit this interview out of the park tonight. There were so many great one-liners." Despite Paul's relatively low support within the GOP, Bartlett—a commodities broker—is optimistic. He says that Republican ranks would swell if the party embraced Paul's fiery, anti-big-government messages. His evidence? In a single quarter late last year, Paul managed to receive a whopping $18.2 million nationwide, mostly from folks who'd never before contributed to a politician. That accomplishment put a smile on Bartlett's face: "I was like a little kid in a candy store."
Soft-spoken Doug Daniels, a Lake Forest engineer, and his accountant wife, Janet, believe so passionately in Paul's often-jolting messages that they've contributed $3,800 to his campaign and run the Paul4Prez website. If politically tone-deaf insiders treat Paul as a kook, Doug points out that his candidate has "trounced" the likes of Giuliani and Thompson in early contests. He also notes that Paul's cries for more civil liberties has energized normally apathetic young voters and awakened others disillusioned with out-of-control government. So why isn't Paul winning any elections? Doug blames the media, saying that reporters and commentators routinely disrespect his candidate. "The mainstream media's own bias keeps them from seeing what should be obvious to an objective observer: Ron Paul is in the best financial shape of any of the Republicans and has the strongest grassroots network," he says. Besides, Paul "may not be with the majority of Republicans on [the Iraq War], but he is with the overwhelming majority of the American people."
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $14,350
Poor Mike Huckabee gets no solo love in OC: As of October, all his biggest contributors—except for Buck Johns—gave to one or more of the other guys as well. Larry T. Smith, who gave Huckabee $2,300, also chipped in $2,300 to Fred Thompson and $1,000 to John McCain. Smith is the president of MHI Real Co.—an administrative firm not to be confused with the Mitsubishi subsidiary—and chairman of Marine National Bank. He is also the registered owner of a private plane: a four-seater, fixed-wing single engine. Beyond that, we don't know what his specific interests are, as he was on an overseas vacation throughout the month of January and could not be reached for comment.
As Huckabee's recent ascent to legitimate-contender status has been driven by support from evangelical Christian Republicans, one would think that $1,500 donor David Bahnsen would be firmly in the Huckabee camp. A senior vice president at Morgan Stanley, David is the son of evangelist Greg Bahnsen, who was once described as "the man atheists fear most" due to his propensity for public debates with them. Greg told his son that he didn't have the right temperament to be a minister, but that hasn't stopped him from sounding off on matters theological. Writing on the Center for Cultural Leaders website about his world-view, he says, "I now aspire to see the Republican Party restored, the Harvards and Princetons re-captured, and Hollywood/New York subverted. In other words, I think the postmil [postmillennialist Christian] belief system I hold to does not allow for a ghetto mentality."
And yet Bahnsen sounds like his enthusiasm for Huckabee has waned the more he's seen of the guy. "I would be more opposed to Huckabee now than I have been at any point," he says. "The reason for supporting Huckabee is the same reason for supporting anyone; I would support the tooth fairy over Hillary Clinton. Even though I am an evangelical Reaganite, I am very uncomfortable with much of Huckabee's economic policy and his foreign-policy naivete." His top choice now is Giuliani, to whom he has maxed out contributions, and he says he'll max out to McCain if the senator moves to the front of the pack.
BILL RICHARDSON, CHRIS DODD, DENNIS KUCINICH, MIKE GRAVEL AND JOE BIDEN
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $242,743
Richardson actually did raise a bit of scratch here, including $2,750 from his old pal Ralph Cygan—and another $2,000 from Cygan's wife, Katherine, and his mother. "I've known Bill since he was 16 years old," Cygan said of Richardson. "He has unbelievable credentials." Cygan's credentials, on the other hand, are a bit shaky. He resigned from his job as chief executive of UCI's Medical Center in February 2006 due to a series of embarrassments, including allegations of preferential treatment within the radiology department, failure to complete enough bone-marrow transplants to meet state standards and the infamous liver-transplant scandal. Cygan, who remains a faculty member at UCI, says Richardson would have made a "wonderful president" had he not dropped from the race earlier this month. Newport Beach resident Alex Kanakaris was one of three Orange Countians to give more than $200 to Mike Gravel. "Ninety-nine percent of people in Orange County probably have no idea who he is, but Gravel was associated in history as a great opponent of the Vietnam War," Kanakaris says. "And I liked the idea that he wasn't a current Washington insider." Representative Kucinich's top contributor here, at $2,250, is Connie Haddad, president of the Orange County League of Women Voters, which tried to reach her on our behalf but said she wasn't answering telephone calls. Senator Biden got $2,300 from Anne Getty Earhart, granddaughter of oil magnate John Paul Getty. Earhart, the 301st richest American in 2002, according to Forbes magazine, was worth $775 million that year, although she's no longer on the list. She's currently the president of the Getty family's charity, the Laguna Beach-based Marisla Foundation. Efforts to reach Earhart through the charity were rudely rebuffed. As for Dodd . . . only ex-USC gymnastics star Ed Babtkis seemed mildly interesting.
DUNCAN HUNTER AND TOM TANCREDO
LOOT AT LAST COUNT: $65,705
The late Joseph Hanna created some of animation's most beloved (Tom & Jerry, Jonny Quest, the Flintstones) and reviled (Scooby-Doo, Speed Buggy, the Flintstones) characters, so let's call his widow, Violet Hanna, the Yabba-Dabba-Donor, especially since she's so Neanderthal in her political beliefs. In 2006, Violet donated to the failed campaigns of Arizona anti-immigrant congressmen Randy Graf and J.D. Hayworth and Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, in addition to forking over $500 to the Minuteman PAC. But her true passion is Tom Tancredo. In 2007, Violet donated $3,000 to the Colorado congressman's failed campaign. Violet lives in Studio City, but campaign records show she used an Irvine address for one of her Tancredo donations. One of Hunter's few contributors is Rush E. Allen, owner of Rush Engineering Inc. in Orange. We couldn't get Allen ("If it's dynamic, it's a Rush job!") to return our calls about why he gave $250 to Hunter's presidential campaign, but here's a cynically slanted juxtaposition of facts: Allen's company is a government subcontractor (NASA, the U.S. Air Force) and Hunter sits on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. Beverly J. Razook, another Hunter backer, is one of Orange County's least-known but most prolific campaign contributors. The owner of Razook Enterprises of Anaheim routinely supports conservative causes across the nation: youth groups, state congressional campaigns, political-action committees, the Republican National Committee and presidential campaigns. In 2004, she told a reporter that she's active because "I think people have become way too liberal." We called her office to ask about the $700 she gave to Hunter's now-defunct campaign last year; an employee told us her boss wasn't in the office. When we said we were going to publish that Razook had contributed to Hunter, the employee gasped. "You don't have permission to write about her political contributions," the woman said. "That's her personal business." Nope, we countered, contribution records are public. "Oh, no!" the woman exclaimed. "Just hold on." There was a 20-second pause, and then the grandmother who supposedly wasn't there materialized. "Hello, honey," Razook cooed. "I don't want to be written up in the paper." And then she slammed the phone down.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.