For Orange County and California Republicans, it was difficult to imagine a more dire political situation going into the 2012 November elections: If state Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton) lost his seat to relative newcomer Sharon Quirk-Silva, he would hand Democrats supermajority powers in Sacramento and, during a period with monumental governmental decisions pending, officially make Republicans irrelevant in state politics for the first time in 80 years.
A Quirk-Silva victory in the newly drawn 65th State Assembly District—a swath encompassing parts of Anaheim, Fullerton, Cypress, La Palma, Buena Park, Brea and Stanton that looks like a partially melted Pac-Man—would represent the proverbial nail in the coffin for Republicans by not only leaving Democrats in control of every major elected office (two U.S. Senate seats, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, controller, superintendent of public instruction and insurance commissioner), but also in insurmountable domination of the state Legislature.
That outcome would mean Democrats could run California on whim even more so than they have for the two years since Arnold Schwarzenegger thankfully returned to making horrible action movies. Republicans would be powerless against legislation dreamed up by the liberal-tilting coalition of public-employee unions, environmentalists, gays, women, blacks, Latinos, Asians and pro-consumer watchdogs that has set the agenda in Sacramento for the past 15 years. They couldn't even perform their usual task of thwarting tax and fee increases on individuals and corporations.
You might guess that doomsday scenario would motivate conservatives to take emergency action to ensure Norby's re-election. After all, party activists went into DEFCON 1 over Barack Obama's birth certificate and, as has been voiced by wide-eyed, tequila-guzzling Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), the president's secret desires to make the USA a subsidiary of the United Nations and a protector of Islamic terrorists. Surely, the inescapable effects of a Quirk-Silva win meant they'd drop the fantasies and pour overwhelming resources and cutthroat strategies into thwarting her candidacy.
Incredibly, it didn't, and Republicans can't claim ignorance of the consequences. Dozens of pre-election news articles laid out the stakes of the contest centering on voters in the 65th. These people would decide whether to send the party of Abe Lincoln into the corner for a minimum two-year timeout.
When all the votes were tallied, Quirk-Silva didn't just squeak by Norby. The Fullerton mayor easily won a race that both liberal and conservative campaign experts labeled in pre-election analysis as a solid GOP seat. She pulled ahead early on election night, never relinquished the lead and ultimately sailed to victory with a 5,500-vote margin.
For decades, Orange County Democrats such as Loretta Sanchez, Tom Umberg, Jose Solorio, Jerry Patterson and Lou Correa won state or federal elections only in portions of the county where they enjoyed sizeable voter-registration advantages. Quirk-Silva made history. With the help of her rookie campaign manager, 31-year-old ex-punk-rock band member Jason Mills, the elementary-school teacher did what was considered impossible in a place once hailed by conservatives as Reagan Country: defeated a Republican incumbent in a district where Republicans outnumbered Democrats at the outset of the race and which for decades had sent rabid right-wingers to Sacramento.
Was the victory of another Latina Democrat over a veteran, white Republican politician a meaningless fluke or further proof of the GOP's inability to adapt to shifting population demographics? Have OC and California Republicans finally hit rock-bottom? Do they have a plan to recover some semblance of power? Or are they destined for more ballot-box irrelevance?
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Inside the Newport Beach lobbying offices he shares with fellow Republican heavyweights Jim Righeimer and Jon Fleischman, Scott Baugh knows there are angry members of his party who are demanding a major overhaul. Through one-way, light-deflecting windows, Baugh can gaze at the tranquil lawns of the Pacific Club, a hotspot for business and political deals. But the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party isn't hiding his assessment of the party's status quo.
"We're doing a poor job," said Baugh, a former state Assemblyman and Assembly Republican Leader from Huntington Beach. "We've got the right principles about prosperity and freedom, but we're not communicating them to voters. Too many of our candidates have lost the ability to articulate a bright and bold future for the average American. We have too much of a corporate mentality, and it's not working."
Though Republicans continue to occupy more than 90 percent of all public offices in OC, Baugh twice used the word "fatigue" to describe party members' mood following recent state and federal election losses. "There's no doubt we've seen a decline of the Republican Party in Orange County and California," he said. "It's really a statewide issue. We've had national tickets that ignore OC except for the cash-o-nomics, and it's difficult to get people to the polls when they aren't excited about the candidates at the top of the ticket."
Other troubles are more homegrown. A mention of Quirk-Silva's victory produced a sigh, and Baugh somberly noted that even if Norby had been re-elected, California Republicans still would have botched the elections because they also lost another so-called safe Republican assembly seat in the Palmdale/Lancaster area. "So Democrats have a supermajority and a one-vote cushion in Sacramento," he said. "The question is: How long will that last? Two years? Four years?"
The answer to that depends, in part, on what happened in the Quirk-Silva race. According to Baugh, the local GOP wasn't in the lead position to aid Norby with financial resources or manage the effort. He claims he warned state party officials at least six weeks before the election that they could lose the seat.
"They sat on their hands for too long, and when they finally paid attention to the race, it was too late," he said. "There was complacency."
Though a startling mindset given the stakes, such a stance is somewhat explainable. Norby enjoyed the perks of incumbency (access to party resources and a sizable donor community), good public name recognition for his efforts to curb government eminent-domain abuses, better campaign experience from his years as a county supervisor and Fullerton councilman, and the loyal support of the popular Friends for Fullerton's Future blog. In the June primary election, he trounced Quirk-Silva by a whopping 18 percentage points.
But Norby also had behind-the-scene problems. "The Democrats took my race more seriously than the Republicans, and the public-employee unions outspent me three to one," he said, also blaming the local GOP of ignoring him for the presidential campaign and state propositions.
Several prominent, veteran California Republican officials explained reasons for the complacency but asked that their names not be used for this story in case Norby runs again and returns to Sacramento. Both basically said the same thing: Norby wasn't a team player and had unnecessarily alienated more than a few fellow Republicans.
"Chris has his good points," said one source who has known Norby for more than a decade. "But he also can be a weird, quirky guy whose personality is prickly. He didn't make a lot of friends up here, and I think there were some people in the party who didn't care if he returned. Party politics isn't always the most important factor. Sometimes, decisions are more personal."
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Quirk-Silva walked into a Panera Bread shop near Cal State Fullerton on a recent Sunday morning, and even though she is a rising superstar in California Democratic Party politics, nobody recognized her. Unlike some politicians, her ego wasn't wounded. There's no time for pettiness. The thrill of entering the state Assembly is "like returning to college," she said. "I'm in a new chapter in my life. There is so much to learn. It's exciting."
Born in Los Angeles in 1962, Quirk-Silva has lived in Fullerton since she was 2 years old. The mother of four earned a bachelor's degree from UCLA and has taught elementary school for more than two decades. A "big believer in a liberal education that teaches students how to communicate," she displayed a sign in her classroom that underscored her mentality: "Ask questions." She says she is following that commandment as she enters her first term.
Her rise to power wasn't an overnight feat. After years of local political activism for policies such as the DREAM Act, she parlayed her networking into a 2004 seat on an otherwise all-Republican, all-male, all-white city council. She won re-election four years later and was named mayor in 2011.
Given there are 34 cities in Orange County, it's not surprising that Quirk-Silva spent the majority of her public life in relative obscurity. That changed 18 months ago, when Fullerton police beat to death Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, 36-year-old, homeless, schizophrenic man. Unlike three members (all older white males) of the council, Quirk-Silva and Republican councilman Bruce Whitaker refused to downplay the gruesome killing or ignore the signs of corruption and mismanagement within the police department.
In early 2012, with the advice and encouragement of Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim), Quirk-Silva decided to challenge Norby, whom she saw as an ineffective representative more worried about libertarian, ideological pontifications than solving day-to-day problems for residents. She says that of about 90 bills Norby proposed, only two became laws. Last May, he won her scorn by labeling Title IX, a 1972 federal law mandating gender equality in college and high-school sports, as anti-male discrimination. Still, she knew she had an uphill battle.
"At first, nobody—not even Democrats—thought I had a chance to win," Quirk-Silva recalled.
Norby had a constituency. He told me he is proud of his three years in the legislature. He made "real difference in the abolition of redevelopment agencies—long a source of corporate-welfare and eminent-domain abuse." He wishes he could have done more to end the War on Drugs, which he calls "a costly war on people," and he noted his ideology is hardly out of touch. "Voluntary, consensual, nonviolent adult behavior of any kind should be decriminalized," Norby said.
But Quirk-Silva's campaign organizers made a critical, early gamble. They decided to save resources for the general election. The move wasn't without consequences. Immediately after the primary, some potential backers used her trouncing as reason to not contribute to a seemingly hopeless campaign. The law of unintended consequences also struck Norby. Donors were hesitant to give him contributions for the November contest because they didn't think he needed the money.
But, as campaign-finance disclosures at the California Secretary of State's office reveal, Quirk-Silva managed to outraise Norby at each pre-election reporting deadline. For example, from July 1 through Sept. 30, she raised $154,000; he raised $72,000. During the first 20 days of October, she collected $95,000—$64,000 more than he.
"It wasn't easy," she said. "I'd say the reason [for winning] was hard work. No, really. Loretta told me that there is no substitution for knocking on doors, meeting people and attending community events. People want to meet you, see you. That's what I did. Jason, my campaign manager, targeted certain areas we needed to win. We started walking neighborhoods in July, and we never stopped. I had so many people tell me, 'You are the first candidate who has ever bothered to knock on my door.' We worked our butts off."
According to Quirk-Silva, her critics—some of whom she believes are misogynistic—habitually underestimate her. "My first council race against Mike Clesceri was very much like this one against Norby," she said. "Some people said, 'Oh, you were lucky. You didn't win. Clesceri lost.' Those are the kind of things I heard, and I'm hearing them again after this election."
Her list of key reasons for her victory includes the strength and determination of her candidacy, the efforts of her numerous volunteers, voters' desire for political change, and her campaign's early recognition of a reality she believes Norby never saw.
"After redistricting, it's a fundamentally different district," she said. "There are new demographics. It's now more diverse. Could I have beaten Norby in the old 72nd District? That would have been a stretch."
As evidence Norby was out of touch, she noted that his campaign literature used a controversial image. The picture showed the assemblyman standing with Marilyn Davenport, an elderly, white, Republican Party Central Committee representative who won national infamy in 2011 when the Weekly revealed she'd emailed a racist image depicting Obama and his parents as chimpanzees.
"Okay, that didn't help," Baugh wryly observed.
Allan Bartlett, a longtime Republican activist in Irvine and a past member of the GOP central committee, was more blunt. Bartlett called the Davenport mailer—which was produced by consultant John Lewis, who worked for corrupt Sheriff Mike Carona before his FBI and IRS arrest—"political malpractice." And he added, "How stupid can you be?"
In the final stages of the race, potential major Democratic donors finally accepted polling results that showed Quirk-Silva could win. Norby's camp had been bragging it was in the lead by double digits and publicly held the challenging campaign in contempt. But the rhetoric was betrayed by repeated, anxious demands for a debate. (As a rule of thumb, incumbents avoid debates in close elections if they believe they are in the lead.) It spoke volumes about the state of the race in October that Quirk-Silva was the one who didn't go out of her way to share a stage.
Democratic Party committees around the state, labor unions and corporations such as Disney didn't mistake the signals. A supermajority in Sacramento obviously was within reach. According to independent journalist John Hrabe, those groups decided in the final weeks of the race to funnel more than $292,000 in contributions to defeat Norby.
Given her past, Quirk-Silva won't be surprised to learn Baugh isn't willing to give her credit for her victory. He insists her last-minute financial windfall from out-of-district sources made her the winner. "That's what was determinative in the election," said Baugh. "The Democrats wanted it more. They went into overdrive to pick up the seat."
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What will it take for the GOP to go into overdrive? You have to wonder what other motivation Republicans need to revamp their efforts. Consider these trends and facts for the party faithful:
• Since 2004, the GOP has lost 31,000 registrations countywide, while Democrats picked up 80,000 new voters.
• In the June open-primary election, Dianne Feinstein, a San Francisco Democrat, grabbed 53,000 more votes in OC than the second-place finisher, Republican Elizabeth Emken.
• Orange County's congressional delegation was entirely Republican in 1996, but following the recent election, it will include three Democratic representatives—Loretta Sanchez, Linda Sanchez and Alan Lowenthal.
• In the new 72nd Assembly District, voters soundly rejected the GOP-backed candidate, unscrupulous Los Alamitos City Councilman Troy Edgar, by handing a 16,000-vote win to a more independent Republican, Travis Allen.
• In Irvine, Republican contributors or operatives such as Adam Probolsky, Patrick Strader, Jimmy Camp and Dave Gilliard betrayed local GOP candidates by aiding the campaign of liberal Democrat Larry Agran, who has a history of giving allies lucrative, no-bid city contracts.
• In 1984, Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat Walter Mondale in Orange County by a margin of 429,000 votes; in 2004, George W. Bush beat Democrat John Kerry by 223,000 votes; and in 2012, Mitt Romney captured just 70,000 more votes than Barack Obama.
Such statistics alarm activists.
"I honestly don't know if the party can be saved in California," said Bartlett. "I worry that [maybe] we haven't hit rock-bottom."
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It's a certainty that if Republicans don't improve relations with Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of voters, they are doomed statewide and in ever-expanding sections of north and central OC. But some Republicans seem determined to continually offend. From his perch inside an overwhelmingly white and Republican coastal congressional district, Rohrabacher, for example, has dismissively called Latinos "Pedro" or "illegals." The tactic delights the right-wing fringe nuts he parties with at local bars, but it sabotages GOP-outreach efforts.
"The bigotry and inappropriate names is behavior I don't support," said Baugh, who is facing re-election to his chairmanship without opposition this month. "Over the years, I've admonished people to not engage in that. It's difficult to make progress if people don't think we like them. . . . A race to the right is frankly pointless for future victories and electoral success."
But, he admits, even he has gotten in trouble.
"I was speaking at Los Amigos [after the election], and I used the term 'undocumented workers,' and people got upset with me," he said. "I honestly didn't know that was an offensive term."
One attendee told Baugh, "You think we're stupid." Another told him the Republican Party was determined to deport Latinos. Such sentiment has driven him to make it a priority to "correct assumptions" and "misinformation" by launching "a conversation" with Latino voters. To deal with illegal immigration, he is personally opposed to deportation or amnesty.
"Neither of those are the solution," he said. "We have to have border enforcement, but also corporate penalties and a guest-worker program that gives people a clear path to citizenship. Look, the Democrats aren't going to do anything to fix the system. We, as Republicans, have an opportunity to do something because it's the right thing to do."
Mocking himself (and, perhaps, Rohrabacher, too), Baugh added, "I really get that the future of our party is not balding, fat, middle-aged white guys."
His strategy hinges on recruiting minority candidates, and Baugh conceded that "some districts are going to be hard to win—maybe we won't ever be able to defeat Loretta Sanchez," but he claims he's already excited about post-election developments.
"I've got a long list of Latino activists and candidates whom I'm working with," he said. "They are eager to help me change the face of the party and defend it. You will see in the next two years a tremendous effort to recruit Latinos to run and to have the Republican Party represented in Latino community by Latinos. That will give us credibility. I want to inspire a generation of young Latinos who can articulate our vision: less regulation, less red tape and less taxes. It's not going to happen overnight, but we're making progress."
It might help his cause if he doesn't invite ex-Governor Pete Wilson as a speaker at party functions, as he did on Nov. 6. A frail, shaking Wilson—one year short of 80—grabbed the podium and mumbled about returning the party to its glorious past by continuing to do what it's doing but just trying harder. For many Latinos, that past is tainted with racism. In 1988, the county GOP helped Curt Pringle narrowly win a state assembly race by illegally hiring poll guards to intimidate Latinos from voting in Santa Ana. In 1994, Wilson used anti-immigrant Proposition 187 as an election wedge strategy for Republican candidates. And with every election cycle that passes, another candidate or activist writes or says something anti-Latino that makes national headlines and drives people such as Baugh nuts.
* * *
Quirk-Silva appreciates she's going to be closely watched, but she isn't concerned. She's making substantially more ($95,000, plus $142 per diem for days the legislature is in session) than she did as a fourth-grade teacher. Because she plans to spend significant time at home in the district, where she lives with her husband, Jesus, a middle-school math teacher, she is renting a small studio apartment across the street from the capitol. Already connected with residents, she says she doesn't need an outreach plan.
"Most of the people in the district have the same concerns I do," she said. "They work hard, they feed their families, and if they can get a chance, they'd like to take a little vacation. I want to get things done in Sacramento for them."
She says she firmly believes in "fairness" in government policies and a more activist state bureaucracy than Norby, but don't expect her to espouse fiery class-warfare rhetoric. "I don't like fear-driven dialogue," said Quirk-Silva. "I don't like the 'us versus them' mentality. I think that's what Norby played on in the campaign, especially in his mailers. He told people that if the DREAM Act kids win, you lose. He showed images of people crossing the border. That's very polarizing. People get tired of being beaten up on."
The big question around the state is: Will Quirk-Silva help Democrats raise taxes and fees?
"I didn't run to be the [member who gave Democrats the supermajority]," she said. "I just happened to be [that member]. My goal isn't to figure out how to raise taxes and fees."
But will she back a tax hike? "It really depends on what it is," she replied.
Baugh has a warning. "If she votes for tax increases, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a recall campaign against her before the next election," he said. "With their one-vote cushion, maybe Democrats will let her off the hook. We'll see."
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Quirk-Silva believes Baugh's thoughts would best be used "to help the whole delegation—Republicans and Democrats"—make life better for Orange County residents.
"Let's get things done together," she said. "I'm not opposed to reaching across the aisle. I had to do that on the Fullerton City Council. The political season can come later."
She's heard rumors that Republicans are already aiming to make her a one-term wonder.
"I'm very aware they want to take back that seat," said Quirk-Silva. "But whether I serve two or four or six years or more is ultimately up to the voters in the district. If I lose in the future, I have no problem going back to the good life I had in the classroom."