The moderator calls the meeting to order, though he's hard to hear over the sound of ice cubes falling into someone's plastic cup. This meeting of Anaheim Republicans is being held in a banquet room of a Carl's Jr., a banquet room equipped with a big-screen TV, napkin dispensers and a six-drink soda machine. About 25 people—with an average age of 60—have shown up, so apparently they hold no grudges against Carl's Jr. for those commercials that portray senior citizens as cattle.
They are there for a debate between Ken Fisher and Jeff Chavez, two men who'll face each other in a March primary for the right to challenge three-term Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez for the 47th District seat in November.
The meeting starts and stutters. Few are familiar with exactly how to conduct a debate, least of all the candidates. Throughout the evening, they ask, "Am I supposed to talk now?" and, "Do I rebut that?" Neither has ever held public office, yet they are the only Republicans vying for the seat once held by conservative icon Robert K. Dornan. Over the past six years, Republicans with much higher profiles have fought for the seat, but now the mantle has fallen—really fallen—to Fisher and Chavez, who have less name recognition than the green burrito combo being eaten by one member of the audience.
Fisher is an engineer who's active in Republican and Roman Catholic circles. He believes the Constitution was divinely inspired and that it has been under assault—"torn to shreds"—by an out-of-control judiciary. If the judiciary were kept in its place, he says, "we'd have no gay-rights movement and no Roe vs. Wade."
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Chavez, fresh-faced and half the age of most of the attendees, owns several companies; his most recent, he says, a venture capital outfit. He seems more measured, more polished. He says he looks forward to the debate, though he adds that he and Fisher will disagree on very little.
And that's true. They agree that taxes are too high and government is too big. They believe there should be prayer in school and that abortion should be illegal. What they agree most on, though, is their dislike of Loretta Sanchez. They don't like her. She is a liar and a cheat and brags about sexual liaisons, says Fisher. Her name isn't even Latino, Fisher's campaign material says—she's a "name-only Latina," and continues that "she's married to a man named Brixley; [Sanchez] is not her true name."
Fisher's campaign staff might want to note that Sanchez's married name is actually "Brixey"—not "Brixley"—and that "Sanchez" is the name with which she was born, which arguably makes it her true name. But this whole nomenclatural thing is weird territory for Fisher, who introduces himself this evening—and in his campaign material—as Kenneth M. Valenzuela Fisher. He points to his family's roots in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where, he says, his uncle was archbishop. Chavez tells of his ancestors emigrating into New Mexico to escape Mexican socialism and then riding a horse to Los Angeles to find work.
Someone asks Chavez if he's any relation to Cesar Chavez, the farm labor leader, and there's some uncomfortable squirming and a nervous laugh from the crowd.
"No," says Chavez. "I'd like to say I'm related to [boxer] Julio Cesar Chavez because he's an animal." This is what Fisher says he brings: energy, the willingness to engage and fight Sanchez every day.
"That's what it's going to take," he says.
It's going to take this because what Fisher and Chavez dislike most about Loretta Sanchez is that she appears virtually unbeatable. It seems the local Republican Party realizes this, too. It was just four years ago that the seat was contested not only by Dornan but also by rising stars Judge James P. Gray and Lisa Hughes. In 2000, the Republicans threw bilingual activist Gloria Matta Tuchman at Sanchez. She beat Dornan in their 1998 rematch and mopped the floor with Tuchman.
The GOP has tried conservative big names, women and Latino women. Nothing has worked. Sanchez seems entrenched in a decidedly Democratic district that, in 1996, woke up to its power—the area's state senator (Joe Dunn) and assemblyman (Lou Correa) are both Democrats. If it seems an anomaly in a county known for Republicans, it's not. Dornan was the anomaly—a conservative who managed to dominate a Democratic district. It wasn't until Sanchez joined with Latino activists to energize local Democrats that it all changed.
And things have changed. Normally, at a local Republican function such as this one, you'd expect to hear two things: a lot about moral decay and some tough talk on immigration. Though moral decay is heavy in the air—"I believe God is going to pull the rug out from under us if we don't straighten out soon," says Fisher, sounding almost hopeful—tough words regarding immigration no estn presente.
After paying quick lip service to securing the border, Chavez emphasizes the hard-working immigrants he believes must be helped "to achieve the American Dream." Fisher agrees. When someone asks about issuing ID cards for Mexican nationals, Fisher says he favors them only because it might ensure that an immigrant killed while working here won't be buried in a pauper's grave, forgotten.
Most would say that's the political fate awaiting the two of them.
"Kamikaze candidates," says Mark Petracca, who heads the political science department at UC Irvine. "In nonpartisan races, parties have no problem not running someone if they don't think they can win. That's why you see so many county supervisors running unopposed. But for some reason, they feel like if they don't run a candidate in a partisan race, it makes them look weak. So you get these kamikaze candidates with virtually no chance of winning.
"We're used to seeing it with Orange County Democrats," Petracca continues. "I remember seeing the Democrats throw poor Sally Alexander against [Huntington Beach Republican] Dana Rohrabacher. The only way she could get any notice was to challenge him to a surfing contest. And Sally was in her 60s or 70s. Both parties do this. The only difference in Orange County is that Republicans pick kamikazes in their 30s, and Democrats pick them in their 80s."
Indeed, the 30-year-old Chavez is the more intriguing of the two. A bit more polished and photogenic, he admits that he always thought about getting into public service but didn't plan on taking the step until 2004 or 2006. He reconsidered after Sept. 11.
That's laudable, but why would someone with political aspirations and potential get into a race he seems to have no chance of winning?
First, of course, there are no sure things in politics. Loretta Sanchez is proof of that. But there are other reasons. One: name recognition. In a race with at least one high-profile candidate, the spotlight may occasionally illuminate the long-shot candidate—how many had ever heard of Rick Lazlo until he ran for U.S. Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton? Exposure could mean introductions to people with power and money, people who'll be around, say, in 2004 or 2006.
And Chavez seems like a guy in it for the long haul. While Fisher berates Sanchez throughout the debate, assailing everything from her character to her intelligence, Chavez says Republicans must study her. She's been very good at working the district, he says, very good "at bringing money into the area."
She has been even better at "branding" herself. "Most people know her not as a Democrat or Republican but just as Loretta. She's become a name. If we're going to beat her, we've got to learn from her."
One thing they already know is that she's very good at raising money. The Republicans would love it if one of their candidates could catch a little lightning and force Sanchez to spend more time and money in the race than she wants to, forcing her to commit her war chest—estimated at a couple of million dollars—here instead of on helping other candidates.
The problem with that is that it usually requires money to catch lightning, and most Republican money figures to be going to incumbent Dana Rohrabacher's race in the 45th Congressional District, which now includes the more heavily Democratic and union-friendly Long Beach.
It's a daunting task, too daunting even for an berfund-raiser such as Dornan. But Fisher and Chavez will give it a try. As the evening winds down, they even start to sound like Bob Dornan. Chavez calls Communism "the devil's greatest tool," while Fisher tells the audience that he travels to Tijuana to buy his shoes because he refuses to wear shoes made by Chinese slave workers.
The moderator asks if there are any more questions, and a woman, excited, raises her hand. She asks if either candidate could make a 15-minute speech in Spanish to her group.
Fisher smiles. "Unfortunately, no."
"Between us, maybe," Chavez says, laughing, and then adds, "My campaign manager could do it."
"I can butcher it," Fisher chimes in.
There's laughter, and then someone suggests the pair memorize a 15-minute speech in Spanish and simply recite it back.
"That might work," says Chavez, still smiling.
"Gracias," says Fisher.
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