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At 30-Year Low, Democrats Face Tough Task to Regain Power

November 09, 1986|LANIE JONES and JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writers

Considering that the Democratic Party had just reached a 30-year low in Orange County, John R. Hanna, county party chairman, sounded surprisingly upbeat the morning after Tuesday's election.

For the first time since 1956, the Democrats had emerged from a general election with Republicans representing every legislative and congressional district that lie completely within the county.

Working on about two hours of sleep, Hanna, a 35-year-old Santa Ana lawyer, surveyed the damage and vowed not only to rebuild the local party structure, from its fund-raising apparatus to its Democratic clubs, but to give the Republicans stiff competition in 1988.

The Republicans came out of the election with the highest percentage of registered voters in the county in 54 years, with a 54.2%-to-35.6% edge over Democrats. And the Republicans won two central county seats, in the 38th Congressional District and the 72nd Assembly District, that state and national Democrats once had considered safe seats for their party.

In the 38th District, Republican incumbent Robert K. Dornan beat Democrat Richard Robinson decisively, and in the 72nd District Republican Richard E. Longshore defeated Democrat Dan E. Griset.

Still, Hanna was unfazed.

"We're definitely looking to the next election," he said earnestly. "We're going to get that 72nd seat back. Dick Longshore will be hearing footsteps for the next two years. So will Bob Dornan."

For all of Hanna's enthusiasm, however, Orange County Republicans--and not a few Democrats--are skeptical about the county Democratic Party's ability to buck the Republican tide and return to any semblance of power. It appears, indeed, to be a long road back.

For one thing, there is the enormity of the task of rebuilding the opposition party in a county so heavily Republican. County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes jokingly suggested Wednesday that maybe Orange County should secede from California and become the nation's first all-Republican state.

Said Mark Baldassare, a local pollster and a UC Irvine professor of social ecology: "In Orange County, the Democrats really need to almost start all over again and build a new party. I think the Democrats here are confused about who they are."

"I think there are some of the more traditional Democrats and then there are the new-wave Demos," Baldassare said, referring to the younger party members, many from a local activist group called Democratic Associates. That group had backed its own candidate, political novice David Carter, in the 38th Congressional District primary against Robinson.

Attorney Mark S. Rosen, the Democratic candidate in the 71st Assembly District, ran square into some disagreement within his party when he asked some of the volunteers working on his campaign to spread the word that he was opposed to the confirmation of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

Rosen said he knew he needed a law-and-order message to have a fighting chance against incumbent Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), but "all the unions and all the activists were very liberal and supported Rose Bird." So when they telephoned voters about his candidacy they would not mention his opposition to her, Rosen said.

Hope Warschaw, a former staffer for the Democratic National Committee who ran Robinson's campaign against Dornan, strongly criticized the county's Democratic leaders for their lack of attention to the nuts and bolts of politics.

"The real problem with these grass-roots Democrats, these activist Democrats in Orange County, is that they hold parties with themselves. They go to cocktail parties with their closest friends and then say, 'The party is fine.'

"They haven't communicated with the mass electorate. They wouldn't know how to do it even if they wanted to. They'll do hit-or-miss programs in an election year, but that's it. Meantime, the Republicans are out working their base all the time. They're out on the streets year-round."

Warschaw, who lives in Santa Monica, said the party's young leadership never really backed Robinson after he beat Carter in the primary, apparently because they didn't like him personally.

"But we all have to make compromises in our party," she said. "It's a big party. People down here (in Orange County) have to get away from personality contests and just back Democratic candidates, no matter who they are."

"There seems to be little or no long-term consistency of their programs," said Fuentes, the Republican Party chairman, of the opposition's leaders. "They have been very high on hype and press releases and very low on elbow grease and organizational structure. I would counsel them to save the ditto machine ink and spend some time on finding decent candidates and walking precincts."

Hanna, who has been chairman since July, insisted that the criticism from Warschaw and Fuentes was unfair.

'A Lot of Elbow Grease'

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