Mike Ray, 37, is a wealthy Irvine-based construction contractor whose grandfather, a Kansas politician, hitched a ride on a freight train to California during the Depression and later helped write the city charter of Newport Beach.
An active Democrat until he dropped out of the political scene a few years ago after a close friend lost a $1-million state Senate race, Ray has rebounded to become chairman of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County, a 55-member, $1,000-a-year volunteer fund-raising group that has become the county's most influential Democratic organization, drawing the attention of national party leaders in two years' time.
Republican Registration Gains
He believes the Democratic Party in Orange County has a bright future, despite major Republican registration gains and electoral victories over the past five years.
He also believes that "Ronald Reagan is the best Democrat we've ever had in the White House."
Ray succeeds Laguna Beach developer David Stein, who played a major fund-raising role last year in Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But while Stein has the image of a wealthy, ideas-oriented, charismatic entrepreneur-playboy, Ray comes across as a nuts and bolts strategist. And, according to the foundation's executive director, John Whitehurst, Ray represents the sort of person who is under intense peer pressure in Orange County to register as a Republican, but whom the foundation has targeted for membership.
(An associated group, Democratic Associates, woos young professionals who pay $50 a year.)
A graduate of Occidental College in economics and of USC in business administration, Ray served as a youth coordinator for former U.S. Sen. John V. Tunney (D-Calif.), as an account manager at City Bank in New York City and as an analyst at the Dean Witter brokerage firm before joining his brother in running the family construction business, which he says currently has $40 million worth of preleased commercial properties.
Cites Changed Conditions
A resident of Laguna Beach who grew up and attended schools in Newport Beach, Ray says it was easy to be involved in politics at school because there weren't any issues.
"In the 1960s, especially in Newport, we had no problems," Ray said. "Schoolteachers could afford to live in Corona del Mar, and did. Orange County was the perfect suburban place to live. Many people thought of this place as a suburban paradise. But that's changed. Now there are problems. And I like to work to solve them."
But Ray's immediate political goals are rather basic: getting organized to win elections.
"I'm here to develop a winning concept, and we're going to win races," he says.
With the help of the foundation, Ray says, the Democratic Party in Orange County will cut recent GOP registration gains significantly during the next two years, and he predicts victories for Democrats at both the nonpartisan and partisan levels.
Recognizing that there will be many doubters, Ray insists that the party can win a nonpartisan seat on the Board of Supervisors and retake the 38th Congressional District seat formerly held by Democrat Jerry Patterson, who was defeated by Republican Robert K. Dornan last year.
Ray is also predicting that foundation membership will grow to 400, that membership in the associates will rise to 1,000 within 24 months.
"We've got the jazz. We're happening. We're something to rally around," Ray says.
Ray recently returned from Washington, where he met with several senators and representatives about reviving the Democratic Party, and specifically about the situation in Orange County.
"They were amazed when they heard about the foundation," Ray recalls. "They said there was nothing like the foundation in their own states. Paul Kirk (national Democratic chairman) is going to come out here and visit us, and so are a lot of the others we met with, like Richard Gephardt (Rep. Richard A. (D-Mo.)), John Kerry (senator (D-Mass.)) and Al Gore (Sen. Albert, Jr. (D-Tenn.)) . . . . Kirk wants to come here and see for himself, because he told us he wants to use us as a model for Democrats across the country."
Ray said he has also been asked by the Democratic Leadership Council, a national group, to go on a multistate tour with other party activists to explain the foundation concept.
"Other states may have Democratic clubs, but they're not really like the foundation," Rays says.
He says his organization intends to use sophisticated, high-tech techniques that he admits the Republicans have used for years involving targeted mailings and data gathering.
But the economy isn't doing badly; Ronald Reagan is selling the GOP as the party of opportunity so why would businessmen and entrepreneurs be attracted to the Democrats at a time of Republican ascendancy?