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How Baker's Bright Promise Turned Into Despair

June 26, 1988|STEVEN R. CHURM and MICHAEL FLAGG and GEORGE FRANK | Times Staff Writers

Irvine Councilman C. David Baker's run for Congress in the 40th District was marred first by allegations of adultery and later a bizarre sequence of events that put the candidate in the hospital on the weekend before the June 7 primary election. This account of the final days of Baker's campaign was compiled from interviews with campaign workers, friends and colleagues with intimate knowledge of what transpired. Many of those agreed to comment only if their identities were not disclosed.

As he often did when the outside world pressed too close, C. David Baker, on the Friday night before Election Day, went driving alone in his black Mercedes.

Exhausted and emotionally spent, the congressional candidate was reeling from a dramatic confrontation earlier on the evening of June 3.

In a room on the seventh floor of the Irvine Co. headquarters in Newport Beach, surrounded by three friends who also were three of Orange County's more powerful men, Baker had broken down when questioned about writing an unauthorized $48,000 check on the account of a nonprofit foundation to cover last-minute campaign expenses. A political career that had all the signs of "can't miss" had hit bottom as the 6-foot, 9-inch, 325-pound Irvine City Council member wept.

Baker's condition prompted the three men--Superior Court Judge David G. Sills, Irvine Co. executive Gary H. Hunt and Baker's campaign chairman, Timothy L. Strader--to discuss immediate hospitalization of the despondent candidate. But Baker, the early front-runner in the Republican primary in the 40th Congressional District, resisted. Hunt then rode home with Baker to Irvine.

Later, however, Baker left the house, slouched in the front seat of his late-model Mercedes, driving alone into the Orange County night.

It was late the next morning, the weekend before the election, when Baker campaign manager John Nakaoka received an unsettling call about his candidate.

Nakaoka had arrived early at the campaign's headquarters next to the movie theater in Irvine's Woodbridge Village Center to finalize plans for the campaign's last three days.

The race was at a critical stage. Baker was locked in a three-way struggle with attorney C. Christopher Cox and businessman Nathan Rosenberg, both of Newport Beach, for the GOP nomination in the coveted 40th District, where heavy Republican registration gives the winner in that primary a big advantage in the general election.

Baker, backed by a host of a prominent local party activists, had been the early favorite, only to lose that edge to the hard-charging Cox. But now, 72 hours from Election Day, polls showed that the momentum was swinging Baker's way again, and with some last-minute mail to voters and a phone push, Baker might win, taking a big step toward filling the seat vacated by retiring Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach).

Nakaoka, however, was worried when he hung up the phone that morning.

The caller said Baker had failed to show up Friday night at an Irvine Chamber of Commerce function. With Baker's home less than 10 minutes from campaign headquarters, Nakaoka went there to find out what happened. He found only Baker's wife, Patty.

Candidate Baker, she told Nakaoka, was in a Newport Beach hospital.

"I was stunned," recalled Nakaoka, who, like other top campaign aides, did not learn of Baker's whereabouts until that morning.

Baker, under the name John Doe, had voluntarily entered Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian about 3 a.m. Saturday for exhaustion and depression, leaving the campaign, as one Baker aide said, "rudderless at the worst time."

And except for a brief campaign appearance Sunday, Baker remained at Hoag until Monday afternoon. During that span, Baker missed at least seven campaign appearances, forcing his aides to scramble to explain his absence. Only a handful of people were told about Baker's hospitalization.

Baker's friends and supporters, Nakaoka said, "were going nuts when we wouldn't put them in touch with Dave. . . . A lot of people got angry. But my interest was in protecting Dave and his family. It was an extremely tough time."

When a beaming Baker, 35, announced his candidacy for Congress in January, it seemed a fitting extension of a career that had carried the son of a Mississippi sharecropper to unimaginable heights.

Baker, a former UC Irvine basketball star, was an attorney with the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. He was a rising star within the clubby camaraderie of the county's Republican Party and counted some of the area's wealthiest and most influential people among his friends.

He was also executive director of the Irvine Health Foundation, a private foundation with a small, high-powered board and the kind of clout a $16-million endowment represents. His 1987 income, including $37,200 from the foundation, was close to $160,000.

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