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Young Workers Provide the Fuel for GOP Engine

REPUBLICAN REIGN. Orange County conservatives and the pursuit of power . THIRD OF FIVE PARTS


Look beyond the cash and the strategy. The real horsepower in the Orange County GOP's political engine is a cadre of youthful staffers whose hearts yearn for a second Reagan Revolution.

Most are in their 20s--hard-core conservatives whose activism dates from their college years and before. Some are political gypsies who migrate from campaign to campaign as they fight for the GOP cause. Others staff the offices of Orange County's elected leaders, leaving full-time jobs to spearhead critical campaigns, only to jump back when the battle is won.

Together, they form a kind of permanent political class, a clique of conservative activists who keep their bosses in office and themselves on the payroll.

"I've probably worked 100 campaigns," said Jon Fleischman, a special assistant to state Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange) and president of the California Republican Assembly, a volunteer group of extremely conservative activists. His wife, Lesley, is membership secretary.

"Some people have hobbies," Fleischman said. "This is what I do. I love it."

The young aides often spend their Saturdays passing out fliers and knocking on doors. Their heroes include former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and G. Gordon Liddy. They are drawn by ideology; between campaign chores, they talk for hours about the death of values, the curse of welfare, a two-faced president.

"They are the fuel of the movement," said Jack Orr, a San Diego political consultant who has worked for both parties. "Even with a lot of time and money, you cannot win an election without these workers."

For most people, volunteering for a political party is a short-term exercise that satisfies their desire to contribute to a cause they believe in. For a chosen few, however, the party is a route to political power.

Scan the upper decks of Orange County politics, and you will find elected officials and top staffers who began their careers as Republican candy stripers.

"I stacked chairs," said Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who got his start as a party volunteer in the late 1970s. "I did everything back then."

Assemblyman Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana) served on the GOP Central Committee before he ran for office--as did Pringle and Lewis. Greg Haskins, now a top aide to U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and former party director, began as an unpaid gopher. Maureen Werft, chief of staff to Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), worked for five different GOP candidates before she took her current job.

On occasion, some campaign workers can go too far. Earlier this year, three workers pleaded guilty to misdemeanor election fraud for helping draft a bogus Democratic candidate in last year's 67th Assembly District race, which Baugh won.

Rhonda J. Carmony, the 25-year-old campaign manager for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), faces felony charges for allegedly orchestrating the plan; Werft has been charged with two felonies for allegedly voting illegally in the election.

Staunch conservative party leaders discount the Orange County district attorney's investigation as the product of political jealousy by GOP moderates. But others say the scandal illustrates the lengths some are willing to go to advance the Republican agenda--and their own careers.

"Most of these people are young, ambitious, overanxious and idealistic people who lead with their heart," said Richard Temple, a GOP consultant from Sacramento. "Sometimes they get in way over their heads."

One of the convicted GOP workers is Jeff Gibson, a Cal State Fullerton graduate. At just 25, Gibson is a political gypsy who has hopped from campaign to campaign to support Republican candidates.

When he was caught in the scheme to siphon votes from a Democratic candidate, Gibson was managing the campaign to recall Assemblywoman Doris Allen. Before that, he worked as an intern for Pringle, served as director of the San Bernardino Republican Party and was a staffer to Assemblyman Fred Aguiar (R-Chino).

In 1994, Gibson worked for Supervisor Jim Silva's campaign, and last summer managed the campaign to elect Assemblyman Dick Ackerman (R-Fullerton). He now works for GOP consultant Dave Gilliard.

"I have always been interested in politics," Gibson said. "On election day in 1976, when everyone in my class was asked what he or she was most thankful for, I said, 'Gerald Ford.' "

Gibson was in kindergarten at the time.

While some of the young activists, such as Gibson, skip from campaign to campaign, others hold full-time, taxpayer-funded jobs working for Republican elected officials.

State law prohibits public employees from engaging in electioneering, but aides are usually able to work around those restrictions: They do their political work on their own time, or they take unpaid leaves from their jobs to manage critical campaigns. They move in and out of crucial election battles, from government offices to election halls and back.

That was the case in the recall election last year when Jeff Flint, chief of staff to Pringle, took a leave of absence to run the successful drive to unseat Allen. That was also a paid position.

Flint is now back on Pringle's staff, but only half-time. He is also being paid by the GOP to manage fall campaign strategy for the Assembly caucus.

"As soon as the election is over, they bounce back on to the staff," said Orr, the San Diego political consultant. "You constantly have a political commissar sitting in members' offices."

Gary Foster, a Pringle spokesman, noted that the practice of using staffers to do campaign chores occurs in both parties. "This was elevated to an art form by Willie Brown," he said.

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