Eileen Padberg is toying with a Cobb salad over lunch while providing sparkling conversational theater. Equal parts anguish, earthy humor and vitriol, she's apparently decided not to trifle with merely burning bridges and opted instead to strafe them, rig them with TNT and personally push the plunger on the detonator.
This isn't the way a Republican political consultant is supposed to talk about the county Republican Party, especially a person who worked the Bush campaign in California in 1988 and who has managed campaigns for both Sheriff Brad Gates and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi.
But Judith Ryan's failed campaign to unseat Rep. Bob Dornan--a campaign in which Padberg was highly visible from the start--still has Padberg fuming.
She's angry at the "little men" who she says pull the strings in county Republican politics and is particularly unhappy at what she sees as a personal campaign against her in the wake of the Ryan candidacy.
She reserves her special dislike for party chairman Tom Fuentes and a small circle of powerful local Republicans, who are largely unknown to the public but have a lot to say about what happens in this county. But she's also unhappy that Dornan called her a "sleaze ball" in the papers, as if she, and not Ryan, was his opponent.
"They hate me," she says. "Why would they hate me? What have I done?"
You tell me, I say to her.
"I have always been a thorn in the side of the political Establishment in Orange County, and I don't know why," she says. "I don't know why me, as opposed to others. I don't deserve the treatment I get. I don't pull any punches. If I like you, I like you. If I don't like you, you know it. There are no surprises."
Padberg says she's never been one to sit around with the power elite and listen to each other talk about how smart they are. In that sense, she understands that she's not a "player" in the inner circle.
Fuentes and a couple other heavy hitters visited Ryan after the election and said it would be nice if she congratulated Dornan. Padberg says Ryan told them to forget it. Padberg continues to say that Dornan doesn't "deserve" to represent the district.
I suggest that their ire merely reflects unhappiness at having a primary fight. Officials in any party hate in-house contests.
Padberg is convinced that it's more personal than that. "Other people in Orange County have the right to their opinions and feel very deeply about women's issues or the death penalty or a number of issues," she says. "I'm the only one who gets attacked for feeling deeply about my issues."
While she found the Ryan campaign invigorating, the county party's response disgusted her, she says. "This party sucks," she says. "I can't believe that these guys have the balls to do this--they do it only because we're women. But they picked the wrong two women, they really did. The pressure we got before Judy filed was unreal. I got threatened, Judy got threatened."
I had been dancing around it, so I ask her flat out: Is it because you're a woman?
"These people are very insecure," Padberg says. "I'm not a sexist, but they're very insecure about women, very insecure about people who are not like them."
So, it's your feminine presence around them that makes them uncomfortable? That you're challenging their male power base? "I believe they know that I know they're (intellectual) frauds, and that's what drives them crazy," she says.
"It isn't their power base. I can't do anything to their power base. I can't cause them grief. They can only cause me grief. . . . They're despicable people who are very intimidated by women. They think women should be doing something else.
"All I can tell you is that there are other consultants who do what I do and they don't get threatened, ragged on, or beat up," she says.
Uh, gee, Eileen, this isn't how Republican campaign consultants generally talk about the Mother Ship.
"I know," she says, "but it's like I've had enough and I was not going to take it anymore. I have walked away every time and decided that it's just a small group of people, and who cares what they think."
But the truth is, it does bother her. "I'm like anybody else," she says. "I don't like to be hated."
I called Tom Fuentes for reaction, but he didn't call back. Greg Haskin, the county GOP's executive director, started out diplomatically. He said the party doesn't have it in for Padberg, but then he dropped a subtle reminder about Padberg's recent track record in campaigns. (Before the Ryan-Dornan race, Padberg was Sheriff Gates' consultant for last year's failed county jail initiative.)
Oh well, a dig here, a dig there.
In politics more so than in life, you don't get mad, you get even.
Padberg says Ryan is still considering a write-in campaign for the November general election. Despite Dornan's 60%-to-40% win over Ryan, only about 26,000 votes were cast from the pool of 68,000 registered Republicans in the district. With a larger turnout and with another 68,000 eligible Democrats voting in the general election, Padberg thinks Ryan could take Dornan.
In the meantime, don't expect to see Fuentes and Padberg having lunch.
I, on the other hand, decided I need to have lunch with Padberg a lot more often.