Just two years ago in Orange County—often cited as the heartland of this nation’s most rabid John Birch Society-inspired conservatism, Barack Obama enjoyed jaw-dropping electoral success. He did what no other Democratic Party presidential candidate had done in modern history here: He wasn’t trounced at the ballot box. Don’t laugh. The then-Illinois senator came within 2.6 percent of beating GOP nominee John McCain inside our borders. To better illustrate the seeming seismic shift leftward, consider that 8,000 more Orange County residents voted for Obama than for George W. Bush when the Texas Republican initially won the White House in 2000. Ironically, Obama’s victory may have fueled the imaginations of OC conservatives more than Democrats.
At 8 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning this May, two dozen enthusiastic folks—“a bunch of fat, middle-aged white guys,” one of them laughingly said—gathered in the driveway of Mark Dobrilovic’s Mission Viejo home in hopes of setting off political dynamite during the June elections. Two young boys noisily played ball in the front yard while huddled adults spoke of “taking the country back.” A table covered with stacks of glossy campaign literature and bumper stickers sat in front of an open, cluttered garage, which was flanked by Old Glory and a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. After eating doughnuts, sipping coffee and chatting unflatteringly about “Hutchinson”—that would be Sheriff Sandra Hutchens—the men collected campaign literature to distribute door-to-door, grabbed precinct maps targeting high-propensity voters, said cheerful goodbyes to Dobrilovic and drove away.
Many of these men are part of the tea-party movemenent. And their mission, broadly, is to return OC to its conservative roots—much as Rand Paul did last week by winning the GOP senate primary in Kentucky. On this day, the specific goal was to help elect the rebel, U.S. Constitution-waving candidate for sheriff, Bill Hunt.
A former sheriff’s lieutenant who lost his job after running in 2006 against then-sheriff (now-convicted-felon) Mike Carona and publicly challenging his onetime boss’ ethics, Hunt has become the outraged, local face of the tea-party movement. Regardless of the issue—gun control, illegal immigration, taxes, criminal rights, government waste, federal power grabs and taxpayer-funded corporate bailouts—his views are often indistinguishable from those of tea-party activists.
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Indeed, every time Hunt campaigns with Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio—the most aggressively anti-illegal-immigrant lawman in the nation—his bond solidifies with this angry voting bloc. Thunderous cheers have repeatedly greeted Hunt’s promise that he’ll post “a posse of armed deputies” to block federal agents any time he thinks they are trying to exceed their constitutionally defined role in local matters. That pledge hasn’t sat well with all voters. One Hunt volunteer, who declined to provide his name, told me that the only criticism he’s heard while distributing campaign fliers is “a fear in some people that Hunt might be too aggressive for the job.”
Meanwhile, Hunt’s opponents, Anaheim Deputy Police Chief Craig Hunter and incumbent Hutchens, have struggled to win that kind of vocal, foot-stomping support. Believing he’s the most accomplished police executive and unwavering conservative in the race, Hunter, who won The Orange County Register’s endorsement, has voiced exasperation. He says Hunt is campaigning on cheap political rhetoric designed to inflame the likes of the tea party.
A retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s official before the Orange County Board of Supervisors appointed her in June 2008 to fill Carona’s unexpired term, Hutchens stands even less of a chance of winning over that crowd. The fact that she often skips candidate debates sponsored by conservative activists shows that she’s aware of her unpopularity, though she may not yet appreciate its depths.
“We are finding that it’s very easy to get votes for Bill Hunt,” said Dobrilovic, a gregarious linebacker-sized man who wore an “American Chauvinist” T-shirt. “Even people who haven’t paid attention to the race, they are solidly for Bill after you tell them about the issues. I don’t want to say people hate the sheriff, but there just isn’t any enthusiasm for Sandra Hutchens down here. I’ve been walking precincts for a long time, and I haven’t yet met anyone who has told me they support her. That should tell you a lot. Mission Viejo is the sheriff’s largest [policing] contract city!”
Lake Forest resident Bob Holtzclaw, one of the Hunt volunteers that morning, told me he believes Hutchens has ignored problems involving day-laborer sites in his city and that Hunter isn’t fit for the sheriff’s job.
“I’ve watched all the candidates,” said Holtzclaw. “Bill understands policing better. He wants to move us back to the U.S. Constitution framework, you know, hometown rights. He’s really a down-to-earth, open-door type of guy. I think Hunter has a problem keeping his cool. I’ve seen him snap a couple of times at people asking questions during events. If he blows up over a simple question, what’s he going to be like as sheriff? The sheriff has to be able to roll with the punches. Bill can do that.”
I asked Dobrilovic, a Mission Viejo city commissioner, if Hunt wins next month, should tea-party folks get credit?
“Will it be because of the tea-party people, or will it just be more conservatives coming out to vote?” he asked in response. “I don’t know. What I do know is that many more people have become active and are very enthusiastic. It’s out of anger. Angry people vote. My mother is in her 70s, and she’s mad. And it’s not a black thing against Obama, either. It’s a spending thing.”
He said the 2008 Democratic election victories were a wake-up call.
“This is what happened,” said Dobrilovic. “We sat out that election because none of the candidates at any level excited us. John McCain?” He makes a dimissive hissing noise. “No way. But we’re fully engaged now.”
Here are the rules of the upcoming sheriff’s election: The candidate who gets 50 percent of the vote, plus one, wins outright. If no one accomplishes that feat, the top two candidates go to a November run-off election. Recent polls put Hutchens and Hunt, currently a private detective, in the top slots, though neither is close to capturing majority support. Conventional wisdom holds that the race will get settled in the fall.
But based on his voter outreach, Dobrilovic—a financial adviser and first time candidate for the OC GOP Central Committee—predicts a major upset.
“Oh, Hunt wins the race in June, and there’ll be no November [run-off],” he said confidently.
That’s a bold prediction. Others are more cautious, especially after the Santa Ana police union recently yanked its Hunt endorsement once it learned he was hired by an alleged gang member to perform private-investigation work in a robbery case.
GOP sources who have access to extensive polling data have told me, “It’s Hutchens’ race to lose.” But Allan Bartlett, a South County Republican activist, predicts Hunt will finish first and Hutchens second—with no one gaining 50 percent of the June vote.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill gets in the 40s [percentage-wise] and Hutchens gets in the 30s,” Bartlett said. “I don’t see Hunter winning a serious amount.”
Both Bartlett and Dobrilovic anticipate that a Hunt victory—whether in June or November—will trigger a new era at the local GOP, which has repeatedly snubbed Hunt for being an uncontrollable outsider.
“Republicans have been frustrated with the central committee establishment because they refused to go against Mike Carona long, long after we knew he was a serious problem,” said Dobrilovic. “That was astounding! And then they refused to give a vote of no-confidence in Sheriff Hutchens when they should have after she did some stupid things like take on gun rights and bring an LA mentality to the department.”
Dobrilovic’s attention shifted to one of his young sons who’d accidentally thrown a ball that got stuck in the garage ceiling. “You’ve really got to work on your pitch,” he said, laughing and returning to politics. “Hey, it’s time we Republicans in Orange County stand for something, like Bill Hunt does.”
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