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Women Grapple With Gender Gap : Male-Dominated GOP Leaves Them Little Room, Many Say

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


A February chill swept through the Orange County hotel meeting room where 31 local Republicans had reluctantly agreed to discuss their differences on abortion.

Deep divisions in the national Republican Party over such social issues as abortion had affected even the fabled GOP stronghold of Orange County, where a handful of high-profile Republicans had come out in support of Democrat Bill Clinton for president in 1992.

Now, three months after the election, both sides of the abortion issue were called to the table by Gus Owen, then president of the influential Lincoln Club of Orange County and an abortion rights supporter whose wife, developer Kathryn G. Thompson, had been one of the defectors. Owen hoped to keep the local rift from widening.

On one side were the moderates, mostly women, including Janice Johnson, whose husband, Roger, would later become the highest-ranking Republican in the Clinton administration as General Services administrator. On the other side were the conservatives, mostly men, including Orange County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition.

But the meeting would prove to be more than a debate over abortion. In the eyes of some who attended, it would symbolize the gender gap that separates many moderate female activists from the male-dominated power structure that controls Orange County's Republican politics. And the moderates came away from that 1993 meeting believing the leadership was intolerant on women's issues.

As Owen would say later, "It's difficult to be part of the 'old boys' crowd when you are a woman."

A number of Republican women in the county say they are often shunned and sometimes laughed at when they run for partisan office or try to move up the ranks of the county GOP. Even in recent elections, when there was an open seat and no incumbent, women say they were not recruited as candidates. Those who ran were given no support from the party and usually had to campaign with their own money.

"The battle in Orange County is about power. . . . It's about acquiring more toys" that can be manipulated, said Eileen Padberg, the 1988 regional political director for the George Bush presidential campaign. She publicly broke with local party leaders in 1992, while managing an unsuccessful primary campaign to unseat Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).

"They would rather you have a penis than have intelligence or independence," Padberg added. "One, you can't run against an incumbent, and two, you're not one of them. You don't have the secret handshake, so you can't run."

The party power brokers who recruit candidates or supply campaign money insist there is no sexism. They want to win elections with the best candidates that reflect the political views of their districts, they say.

"I don't look in people's pants before I decide whether I support them or not," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).

If women are not supported, Fuentes explains, it is because they are taking on Republican incumbents, do not have financial backing, or are "liberals" who do not fit the county GOP's conservative philosophy.

"Let's not confuse the term 'women' with 'liberal women,' " Fuentes once told a reporter. Men who do not meet the same criteria also are told to drop out, GOP leaders maintain.

Nevertheless, a perception of sexism causes Republican women to feel cast out of the party, said County Supervisor Marian Bergeson, an antiabortion supporter who 18 years ago became the first woman from Orange County elected to the state Legislature.

The county's record on electing women to higher office reinforces that perception:

* No woman from Orange County has ever been sent to Congress.

* Of the 11 members of the county's Sacramento delegation, 10 are men. The exception is Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Irvine).

* Only two women have served on the Board of Supervisors: the first, Harriett M. Wieder, retired in 1994, the year Bergeson was elected supervisor after 16 years in the Legislature.

Bergeson said both men and women need to do more to get women elected to office. Women, she said, need to organize, recruit candidates and raise money, establishing the same power networks that have long existed in male political circles.

"Oftentimes, a woman will be evaluated on her ability to raise money. Traditionally, women have not had that access to money," Bergeson said, adding that will change "when women start spending money to elect women."

However, she also faults men for setting a higher threshold for female candidates. Women "can lick the stamps and walk all the precincts" for men's campaigns, but that doesn't give them the right, in men's eyes, to run for office, she said.

Local political lore is filled with stories of women who approached power brokers with their campaign plans only to get "friendly advice" that the women likened to a pat on the fanny.

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