OCW20: "Dear Congressman" Revisited
The look back at OC Weekly's first 20 years resurrected the cover image from Nov. 1, 1996, when my fat, oral-fixated face went up to mark "The 20 Best Lines From Matt Coker's Much-Missed A Clockwork Orange Column." But what about the story that accompanied that cover originally?
"Dear Congressman: An OC Weekly Sting"--or as it was subtitled on the cover, "Our Matt Coker infiltrates the GOP so you don't have to"--only seems to exist online in partial form here; scroll to bottom). I'm not about to re-type that sucker, so I'll try to fill you in--in illustrated form ...
Spy Lazlo Letters page from June 1993
During the olden days of OC Weekly, blatant rip-off was the sincerest form of flattery. We loved the Seattle Stranger's "I, Anonymous" and "Eight Days" columns, so we Orange Countized them into "Hey, You!" and "Diary of a Mad County." I loved "The Lazlo Letters" of Spy magazine in the 1980s, unaware that author Don Novello had actually started writing them in the late '70s and that Loren Michaels hired him as a Saturday Night Live writer based on those and not the sly Father Guido Sarducci character. Lazlo/Novello sent letters to American corporations that would start somewhat mild and grow ever more deranged, and they would be signed "Leonard Toth, American." These would run in Spy with the replies that, whether form-like or specific to Mr. Toth's actual imaginary concerns, seemed to say something about the corporation.
Actual Matt Stanfil letterhead
"Dear Congressman" was based on "The Lazlo Letters." What really struck me were the American flags on Lazlo's return address stickers. They reminded me of similar nutty letters I'd received during 13 years at daily newspapers before coming to the Weekly.
My idea now was to make "Dear Congressmen" letters a running gag in the Weekly. Editor Will Swaim had the good sense to make it a one-and-done feature story. But I had to come up with a name for my letter writer, which came courtesy of a fellow at my door trying to sell me a Los Angeles Times subscription, back in the days when the Times actually tried to beat the Register. When I informed the salesman I already subscribed to the Times, he said I could get it for less if I cancelled and re-subscribed under a different name. He said he'd get credit for the sale and that the Times did not care because they would be able to count both subscribers to the readership verification service that month. (And Times folks called us shady!) The salesman suggested I keep my first name but use my mother-in-law's maiden name as my last name. Matt Stanfil was born, although I learned years later it should have been spelled e-l at the end.
Beginning of letter to Bob Dornan
Stanfil wrote to Reps. Jay Kim, Ed Royce, Ron Packard, Christopher Cox, Dana Rohrabacher and Robert Dornan about a planned "Million Man March of One" he'd mount in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate one man's conversion from a liberal Democrat to a conservative Republican. Only "B-1 Bob" wrote back to cheer Stanfil on.
I can't find the nice letter I got back from Dornan, but I do still have the signed photo he sent me, I mean, Stanfil. That did not constitute enough material for a feature length story so, with my deadline fast approaching, I got desperate.
Actual letter to Silva
Stanfil branched out to Orange County state senators, Assembly members, county supervisors, police chiefs, anyone who might write back something. State Sen. Rob Hurtt was asked if he was related to someone Stanfil had had a crush on in Iowa. Huntington Beach Police Chief Ron Lowenberg was cheered on for doing a great job despite his department's officers having a reputation for being assholes. Anaheim Stadium officials were offered Stanfil's carpentry services to renovate aging Angels Stadium into The Giant Pancake, which would open the door for IHOP and Denny's naming rights.
Actual Jim Silva letter
As for responses, Stanfil heard back from then-county Supervisor Jim Silva, who assured the author that he was not leaving office soon despite what had apparently come out of fellow Supervisor Roger Stanton's mouth. By far the nicest letter came from the since-deceased chairman of the Orange County Republican Central Committee, Tom Fuentes, who invited Stanfil over for coffee. That letter had been set aside to show you here, but damn if it can be found. Also in a box in my garage somewhere is Stanfil's letter to the editor that ran in the LA "By God" Times.
Actual sticky notes
The scariest response came not in the form of a letter but a phone call from the Costa Mesa Police Department. Stanfil had written to the chief about the people who jaywalk on the city street he takes to work, wondering if he hit one but was running late, would he have to stop because he's a very busy man. The sticky notes of that conversation survived.
CMPD: Is Matt Stanfil in? ME: Yes. Is this Matt Stanfil? Yes. This is Sgt. John Pherrin of the Costa Mesa Police Department. I'm calling about a letter you wrote to the traffic safety department. Uh-huh. Did you write the letter? Yes. Is it true what you're saying in the letter? What did it say? That you'd hit a pedestrian crossing the street ... I don't think I'd hit anyone. ... and then you would drive away. Well I don't think I would do that, sir. It is perfectly legal for people to cross there, and if you hit someone and leave the scene, like you did say, you would be in serious trouble. OK. Who is this? Sergeant John Pherrin. Thank you. OK. I'm just trying to help you out. Thank you. And this is Matt Stanfil? Uh ... yes. Click!
Invites and name tag
Because Stanfil had offered to help the Republican Party in the upcoming presidential election, Fuentes invited Stanfil to a GOP event in Newport Beach to get familiar with fellow elephants. Stanfil could then help with Republican presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole's campaign at a local office. "Tio Tomas" was taken up on both offers.
As mentioned in the original "Dear Congressman" story, the joke was on Matt Coker because Matt Stanfil worked his butt off in a Mission Viejo campaign office one afternoon calling folks and urging them to vote for Bob Dole. The joke was really on several months later, when my "A Clockwork Orange" column amounted to a sincere obit for a woman who some county GOP operatives totally made up to sting the Weekly.
As Lazlo Toth told a defeated President Gerald Ford, "You played a good game."
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