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Many Democrats Have Seen Benefit of Switching to GOP

May 11, 1987|CLAUDIA LUTHER | Times Political Writer

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes talks about them as "conversions"--the switch of elected local Democratic officials to the GOP.

"People have often said I view it with maybe more fervor than I ought to," Fuentes said, chuckling.

Fuentes has reason to be happy. In the last several years, a parade of Democrats who hold nonpartisan offices in the county have switched to the GOP, and more are likely to follow.

The most recent to change political colors is Santa Ana City Councilman Wilson B. Hart, who made the announcement at a much-publicized press conference. The biggest prize was Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, who switched nearly three years ago, saying he found himself increasingly more comfortable with the GOP's fiscal conservatism.

Others include Garden Grove Mayor Jonathan H. Cannon, County Clerk Gary Granville, Fountain Valley City Councilwoman Barbara Brown, Buena Park Mayor pro tem Rhonda McCune, Costa Mesa City Councilman Peter Buffa, Huntington Beach City Councilman John Erskine, Superior Court Judge William F. McDonald, Orange County Unified School District board member Sandy Englander, and Rancho Santiago Community College District board members Rudolfo (Rudy) Montejano and Hector Godinez Sr. And another notch in the GOP's gun is former Stanton City Councilman Jim Hayes, director of budget and management services for the Orange County Community Services Agency, and his wife, Joan Hayes, former president of Savanna School District in the Stanton area.

There has been no such crossing over of Republicans to the Democratic Party. The only prominent Republican who has registered as a Democrat in recent memory is Superior Court Judge Bruce Sumner, 62, now retired, who switched 15 years ago, several years after he ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in a bruising battle with conservative John Schmitz.

Some Democrats have made the move to the right with fanfare, while others have done so quietly. All are aware that they are in danger of appearing opportunistic in this heavily GOP county, where having an (R) after one's name--even if it isn't on the ballot, as would be the case in a nonpartisan race--is distinctly more advantageous than having a (D).

All say they switched over because they felt their political philosophies were more in tune with the GOP. Some say it was the Democratic Party that deserted them, not the other way around. A couple proudly say they followed in the footsteps of the party standard bearer, President Reagan, who once was a Democrat.

A few added that, frankly, it cannot do any harm in Orange County, either in election politics or in a business climate that is influenced by partisanship, to be a moderate Republican rather than a moderate Democrat.

"If you're going anywhere in partisan politics in this county, you're going to go there on the Republican ticket," said Supervisor Stanton, who says he does not have to worry about such things because he plans to run for reelection to his nonpartisan post in 1988.

Hart, the Santa Ana councilman who recently changed over, said that as he grew up "and realized how tough it is to make a living and how important the business sector is, I found myself moving father and farther away from the mainstream Democratic principles."

Not surprisingly, many of the shifts to the GOP are viewed with some cynicism by Democratic activists in the county, who assign reasons other than philosophy to their former party mates' re-evaluation of their political thinking.

"They all claim it's ideological, and I think occasionally it's true," said John Hanna, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. "But generally they're looking for a higher office or they're looking for an (government) appointment or they're looking for a business opportunity."

"I was concerned with changing parties and not knowing how I would be received, whether I would be received with suspicion ro welcomed with open arms," said Garden Grove Mayor Cannon. "I'm a political person and I need to be involved."

Activists on all sides agree that in Orange County, being a Republican is de rigueur , as seen clearly by voter registration figures.

As of May 1, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 559,975 to 364,813. Even beyond the raw figures, Republicans traditionally are more loyal to their party at the polls, so Orange County is considered all the more overwhelmingly GOP. Only once since 1938, the earliest figures on hand at the county Registrar of Voters, has the county had more registered Democrats than Republicans--in the post-Watergate anti-Nixon climate of the late 1970s.

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