Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach knows he has a strait-laced image--a reputation for being the kind of guy almost never seen with his jacket off or his tie loosened. It is an image, he says, that predates his career as a prosecutor in Riverside County by many years.
As a kid in what he termed an "atypical American family," Thierbach spent his after-school hours helping his parents run a motel near Disneyland instead of playing football in some suburban neighborhood.
By the time he pledged a fraternity at UCLA, Thierbach was well known for his earnestness. "During Hell Week, all the pledges were given nicknames," Thierbach, now 38, said with a look of chagrin. "Mine was 'Prim and Proper.' "
That, Thierbach said, helps to explain why, as the Democratic candidate in the 72nd Assembly District, he is having trouble adjusting to Orange County's rough-and-tumble partisan politics.
Used to being taken seriously in his profession, Thierbach said he has been somewhat thrown by the the hard-hitting campaign being waged by his Republican opponent, Curt Pringle, 29, a Garden Grove businessman. Pringle was selected by the county GOP to run after incumbent Richard E. Longshore (R-Santa Ana) died the day after he won the June 7 primary.
Pringle, with financial help from Republicans determined to have a GOP majority in the Assembly in time for redistricting after the 1990 census, has accused Thierbach of being a "carpetbagger" and a lackey for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
Thierbach grew up in the 72nd District but was living in an Anaheim home just outside its borders before he decided to run. He and his family since have moved into a condominium in Anaheim that is inside the district.
Thierbach said he has received contributions from Democratic legislators aligned with Brown but denied that Brown has controlled his campaign. He called Pringle's charges "garbage."
"Even though you know the slime is coming, it still affects you," Thierbach said in an interview last week.
Thierbach has received $286,283 in money and in-kind contributions, about half from elected Democratic officeholders or political groups, including $96,352 from organizations controlled by Brown.
Thierbach has run for office before: twice successfully for the Anaheim Union High School District Board of Trustees, on which he currently serves, and once in 1980 against Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) in the 64th Assembly District. Johnson easily defeated Thierbach in the heavily Republican district.
Voter registration in the 72nd, unlike every other legislative district in the county, favors Democrats over Republicans. A recently concluded registration drive increased the Democratic margin; they now outnumber Republicans in the district by 53.7% to 37.4%, according to figures obtained last week from the county registrar of voters.
After Democrats lost the 72nd District to Longshore two years ago, they began planning a comeback. This year, with Speaker Brown's troubles with his own party's recalcitrant "Gang of Five," the district took on a new importance. When Thierbach agreed to run, Democrats were elated, believing his background as a prosecutor and school board member would appeal to local voters. Money and support from Democratic legislators aligned with Brown have followed.
But some legislators have been critical of Thierbach, saying he has not campaigned aggressively enough. His mail pieces so far have contrasted his credentials with his opponent's, eschewing more combative attacks against Pringle.
"If it doesn't work, then so be it," Thierbach said of his campaign.
There is no doubt that the free-swinging 72nd District campaign is not what Thierbach had in mind when he decided on a career in public service. At age 13, he was deeply affected by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Six years later, he worked on Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in California and was in the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was murdered in 1968.
"The thing that impressed me with Bobby Kennedy was his youthful vigor, his enthusiasm and what I felt was a sincere commitment to get things accomplished," Thierbach said. "I guess I made the conscious commitment at that point to dedicate my own life to public service."
Since then, Thierbach has finished college, received a law degree, married, joined the Riverside County district attorney's office, cared for his ailing parents, fathered two children and embarked on a political course that led him to the current race. He said he would like to conclude his public career in the U.S. Senate.
Thierbach's wife, Marlene, who also is a lawyer, said her husband almost did not run for the Assembly because the couple's second child, Alison, was born in March.
"But we hated to pass up the opportunity," she said. Sometimes the whole family, including the couple's son, Chris, 6, walks precincts.