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REPUBLICAN REIGN: ORANGE COUNTY CONSERVATIVES AND THE
PURSUIT OF POWER

Rich Source of GOP Funds

Politics: A top donor in federal races, O.C. is even more generous locally. Businessman, state senator lead contributors.

July 10, 1996|GEBE MARTINEZ and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To Republican politicians nationwide, Orange County's image is of a sprawling money tree, sagging with riches to be spent on the Grand Old Party.

The image is no myth.

Orange County gives often and well to Republican candidates and their causes.

The county ranks among the top donors to federal candidates, outpacing such bastions of GOP big bucks as Nassau County, N.Y., and Oakland County, Mich., two areas that closely resemble Orange County in terms of wealth and Republican leanings.

At the state and local level, Orange County Republicans donate even more, powering the GOP drive to capture the state Legislature.

But the county's biggest donors are no longer the land developers who controlled the local political finance game before California's economic bust earlier in the decade.

The new big players are two ultraconservative Orange County businessmen drawn to politics by their religious beliefs: Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson Jr., the scion of a savings and loan fortune, and Sen. Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove, the Republican leader of the state Senate.

Hurtt, Ahmanson and a political action committee they co-founded with two other Southern California businessmen helped fund the campaigns of nearly two-thirds of the Republicans in the Assembly, and almost half of those in the Senate.

"The reason why we [Republicans] took over the Assembly was because of them," said William Buck Johns III, a member of the conservative Lincoln Club, another top contributor to state and local campaigns.

During the first half of this decade, Ahmanson and Hurtt donated at least $7.1 million to local and state political causes. Their partners in what was originally called the Allied Business PAC--now known as the California Independent Business PAC--plowed another $1.4 million into state and local political campaigns over the same period.

In the pivotal months before the 1994 election, Hurtt and the PAC ranked second and third on the list of top 10 donors in the state, edging out such traditional givers as the insurance industry, doctors and trial lawyers. And they promise to remain at or near the top in 1996.

"Their influence on the Republican Party, I think, has been smashing," said Jerry Sloan, president of Project Tocsin, a group that monitors the religious right. "They have literally taken over the party."

Ruth Holton of California Common Cause said the contributions by Hurtt and Ahmanson reflect what is wrong with California's political process. Currently, there are no limits to the amounts an individual or political action committee can contribute to candidates in California, one of only seven states that do not impose caps on campaign contributions.

But the days of limitless political philanthropy may be coming to an end in California.

Two citizen initiatives on the November ballot would impose campaign contribution caps of either $100 or $250 to candidates for state legislative office, and $200 or $500 to candidates for statewide office, such as governor. With these measures heading for a statewide vote, the Assembly recently approved its own measure, one that would impose a $1,000 limit on donations to legislative candidates.

Such restrictions are already in place at the federal level, where campaign contributions to any single candidate are capped at $1,000. But the federal restrictions haven't dried up the flow of so-called "soft money," which is given to the parties and passed on to candidates.

In spite of the federal restrictions, Orange County has proved a treasure trove for Republicans seeking federal office.

"What is undeniably true is that Orange County is among the best fund-raising locales in the country for Republicans," said Dwight Morris, president of the Virginia-based Campaign Study Group, which analyzed Federal Election Commission reports for The Times.

From the beginning of 1991 to the end of 1995, Orange County residents donated $15.3 million to federal campaigns in contributions exceeding $200. Nearly two-thirds of that amount went to Republicans, according to FEC reports.

Because of Orange County's wealth and its reputation for generous contributions to conservative campaigns and causes, GOP candidates from around the country have made it a regular stop on their fund-raising tours.

Newt Gingrich, for example, came prospecting in 1991 for money that he would later use to help win Republican control of the House. Former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch tapped the county's wealth for their Senate campaigns.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, Gov. Pete Wilson and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole came to Orange County last year and raised a total of $652,381 for their presidential bids.

And just three weeks ago, Dole was back in Newport Beach so he could press the flesh with local party faithful who contributed $5,000 each for the honor of breakfasting with the candidate. The event brought in $105,000.

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