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GOP in O.C.: Setting Sights on the State

After conquering the county, a cadre of conservatives use deep pockets, political muscle to expand their power.


Out on Orange County's hot political blacktop, Republicans play hard and for keeps. No sissies or whiners allowed. Payback is hell.

Just ask Todd R. Thakar. Back in 1992, the Republican attorney had the temerity to challenge state Sen. John R. Lewis, a GOP fixture in America's conservative heartland. Thakar, a moderate, was warned to stay out. He ran anyway and lost big.

Lewis didn't forget Thakar's impudence. Two years later, the Orange conservative engineered a measure of revenge, thwarting confirmation of Thakar's mother, a wealthy GOP donor, to the California State University board. Concluded a Republican colleague: "Lewis is mad at the kid."

Such hardball tactics are de rigueur in Orange County, where a cadre of conservatives so dominates politics that outsiders stand virtually no chance. Foes call them a machine, the "Orange County Mafia," and bitterly assert that their methods often cross the line, restricting political participation to handpicked loyalists. But even their harshest critics can't dispute their success.

Now, these conservative forces are extending their influence throughout California, providing the muscle for a Republican resurgence and branding the state GOP with a mix of free-market philosophy and conservative social values. Already, many analysts describe the Orange County squad as perhaps the most potent force in state politics today.

Just look at the people who occupy California's political power slots.

There is Curt Pringle of Garden Grove, whose tenacity and ambition finally landed him the Assembly's top job--the speakership--earlier this year. In the state Senate, manufacturer Rob Hurtt, also representing Garden Grove, is the upper house's GOP leader and, with Pringle, commander of Republican strategy heading into November's election. Michael J. Schroeder of Irvine, an attorney and aggressive conservative activist, is expected to ascend to the chairmanship of the California Republican Party next year.

"Right now, the center of the political universe is Garden Grove," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School. "It's quite astounding. They are driving the political and policy agenda of this state."

Orange County, birthplace of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and the backbone of the volatile school vouchers initiative, also is an invaluable gold mine for Republican candidates up and down California.

Hurtt, together with Irvine banking scion Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and a few like-minded Southern California friends at the free-spending California Independent Business PAC, has given an astonishing $8.6 million to GOP candidates and causes since 1991.

Their reach has been wide. Almost two-thirds of the Republicans in the Assembly have received significant financial help from Hurtt or the political action committee, which has become a pillar of the religious right. In the state Senate, half the Republicans have benefited from their largess.

And there is no secret about their ultimate goal--control at all levels of the political pyramid.

Already, they have torpedoed the Democrat flotilla that ruled the Assembly for a quarter century. Next in the periscope is the Senate, which conservative lawmakers hope to control by 1998.

If they succeed, California could become a very different place. Among their top priorities are cutting regulations on business, slashing environmental laws, pushing for school choice, reforming welfare, slicing taxes and shrinking government.

"The goal is to pass the Republican agenda," Schroeder said. "That's what this is all about."

Schroeder and his cohorts are confident. And no wonder. Their formula was hugely successful in Orange County, where Democrats have been virtually routed from office.

In the post-Watergate year of 1978, Democrats actually had a slight edge in Orange County. Yet today, Republicans outnumber them 52% to 32%--more than 230,000 voters. That huge margin makes Orange County the great GOP hope in statewide elections.

"We are the anchor to the right of the California Ship of State," said Thomas A. Fuentes, the county's ebullient GOP chairman. "We add balance. . . . We challenge Willie Brown in San Francisco. We challenge the philosophical leftists in West Los Angeles."

The voter registration bulge gives the GOP a stranglehold on elective offices in Orange County, where Democrats don't hold a single federal, state or county post other than a few judgeships. The last elected Democrat was Robert L. Citron, the erstwhile county treasurer-tax collector whose risky investments brought on the 1994 bankruptcy. In the county's cavalcade of 31 cities, four of every five council members are Republicans.

But if success comes at a price, then Orange County conservatives are now paying it.

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