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Star on the Rise : Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez Weighs Future

May 23, 1991|MARIA NEWMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The teen-agers are a tough audience. They have a look of boredom on their face, much as they do when any adult, especially one dressed in a suit and tie, comes to address them.

Sensing their initial disinterest, Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, the son of an apostolic minister, abandons the podium and takes to the aisles, talking as he paces back and forth, Phil Donahue-style.

For the next hour or so, he has the 200 students at Capistrano Valley High School, many of them Latino immigrants who speak only a little English, laughing or looking pensive. Moving adroitly from Spanish into English and back, Vasquez tells the students how the son of migrant farm workers who toiled in Watsonville made it to the chairmanship of Orange County's Board of Supervisors, the only Latino, and its youngest member ever.

"My parents never graduated from high school, because they were very poor, but they had a lot of love, and they always said education was the most important way to climb out of poverty," he tells them. "You have a great school, you have people who care about you, your future, and you can make something of your lives."

When he is done with his speech, a few students raise their hands to ask questions. When the questions wind down, Vasquez fires up the group again by asking: "How many of you were born in Mexico?"

Vasquez is comfortable in front of a crowd. At 36, he is said to have limitless potential as a politician. He is young, Republican and Latino. He has a wealth of public service experience and he is an outstanding public speaker.

Vasquez has just completed his fourth year on the Board of Supervisors, and is serving this year as chairman of the five-member panel. He was appointed to the board in 1987 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian to fill a vacancy and was elected to the post the following year. These days Vasquez is constantly dogged by the question: What does he want next?

Last year at a Miami gathering of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Vasquez captivated an audience when he spoke, said Harry Pachon, association executive director.

"People kept coming up to me afterward and asking, 'Who is he?' He's such a good speaker. Gaddi is one of the rising stars in California," Pachon said. "He joins the ranks of Hispanic candidates that you can count on one hand in California . . . who are being touted for higher state office."

Late last year, he was rumored to be on a list of candidates that Gov. Pete Wilson considered to name as his replacement in the U.S. Senate.

"Had Gov. Wilson appointed Gaddi Vasquez to the U.S. Senate, he could have had one of the best recruiters of Hispanics into the Republican Party," said Richard Martinez, regional director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. "It would have put terrific pressure on the Democratic Party."

Martinez said Vasquez is impressive on the stump. "He talks about his farm worker past, and picks up on the cultural affinity, the emphasis on family. He . . . has a Henry Cisneros-style to him."

Vasquez makes no secret that he would consider running for some post beyond the Board of Supervisors, but for now he will say only that he is happy there.

"I don't have any long-term vision of where I'll be," he said recently as he sat in his corner office at the Hall of Administration in downtown Santa Ana. "It wasn't too long ago that I was driving a patrol car on the graveyard shift of the Orange Police Department."

The talk about Vasquez's future has been mostly of potential, and his year as board chairman is expected to test his leadership abilities as never before. It will be a time, those who know him and work with him say, in which he can prove whether his substance can match his style.

Stuart Spencer, a prominent political consultant on both of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns, also worked for Vasquez during his campaign for supervisor. Although Spencer said Wilson did consider Vasquez as his replacement, the decision was made that Vasquez needed seasoning.

"It was a tempting offer and Gov. Wilson gave it some serious consideration," Spencer said about Vasquez. "But Gaddi just didn't have the experience yet. He needed one more level yet to be material for the U.S. Senate.

"He should take the chairmanship of the board this year and show some leadership," he said. "This is nothing I haven't talked with Gaddi about myself. It's time he demonstrated some leadership and he has the opportunity now to do that."

As board chairman, he is credited with instituting policies that have considerably shortened the supervisorial meetings. But even his supporters are hard-pressed to come up with programs or policies that show he is willing to break away from the pack.

Republican Party leaders in the county say that Vasquez is not a grandstander but is an important component in the GOP's plans to attract more Latinos to its ranks.

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