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REPUBLICAN REIGN: ORANGE COUNTY CONSERVATIVES AND THE
PURSUIT OF POWER

Guiding With an Iron Hand

Politics: Though he calls himself a cheerleader, Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes isn't afraid to play hardball.

July 11, 1996|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Fuentes, chief of the Orange County Republican Party, is not Boss Tweed.

He is not running Tammany Hall.

He has no jobs for cronies. He doesn't fill potholes. And he can't make the building inspector leave you alone.

In fact, Fuentes says, the big, bad political machine that has sandblasted just about every trace of the Democratic Party from Orange County is really not much of a machine at all.

And he is no political boss.

"I'm a cheerleader," said Fuentes with a shrug. "All I do is help ensure the victory of conservative political candidates."

Now in his 12th year as chairman of the Orange County GOP, Thomas A. Fuentes, 47, has presided over a rout of his political opponents so total that it would spark feelings of envy among the grittiest of big city political bosses.

Consider the numbers: With Fuentes at the wheel, the county GOP has increased its lead over the Democrats in registered voters to 232,000--a margin so large it can blunt the liberal strongholds of San Francisco and West Los Angeles in a statewide election.

At the same time, the number of Democrats elected by Orange County voters to federal and state offices has dwindled to exactly zero. But for a few scattered judgeships still held by Democrats, the same would be true at the county level, where every office is held by a Republican.

While the organization Fuentes presides over might not qualify as a full-blown political machine, it is a political phenomenon with few rivals. And while Fuentes is not the only force behind the movement, he is, as he says, its cheerleader.

And its missionary, its public face and its hit man.

"Tom Fuentes bleeds Republican-elephant blood," said Harvey Englander, a political consultant. "His goal in life is to serve the party."

Attend a GOP fund-raiser almost any night of the week and you will likely find Fuentes at the podium, proposing a toast. Make your way to a meeting of any one of Orange County's 60-odd Republican clubs--the Huntington Harbour Republican Women Federated, the Iranian-American Republican Club--and you will, sooner or later, find Fuentes dropping by.

Dan Quayle flying into town? Fuentes will greet him when he lands. Some precocious Republican upstart needs a talking to? Got a Democrat who needs a verbal thrashing? Fuentes is your man.

Not a cigar-chomping political boss, perhaps, but a smiling, irrepressible political animal.

"Managing the Republican Party is like herding a bunch of cats," said Ken Khachigian, a former aide to Presidents Reagan and Bush who now heads the Bob Dole for President campaign in California. "Tom is the one who brings them all together."

Yet success has not come without a price.

Fuentes' hard-line conservative philosophy, and the rough, aggressive style in which he carries it out, has left a trail of disillusioned Republicans. And his practice of favoring some Republicans over others--before the voters have spoken--threatens to open a rift in the party he commands.

"He's a black-and-white guy in his thoughts," said Orange County Clerk-Recorder Gary L. Granville, who has known Fuentes since the 1970s. "There's no grays."

*

At the county GOP's monthly meeting at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa, Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes, a candidate for county supervisor, is denouncing his former political party.

"I used to be a Democrat," Leyes said. "Then the party was hijacked by the militant lesbians, the tree-hugging eco-terrorists and the neo-socialist opportunists!"

The crowd cheers.

Outside, a man peddles T-shirts displaying President Clinton and the first lady clad in bib overalls. The logo: "Hill-Billy Politics." Price: $10.

Fuentes, a man in his element, steps up to the podium. He salutes the many survivors of the recent GOP primary, like Leyes, who have come to show him deference.

Then he gets down to business.

First, Fuentes reads the names of those donating $1,000 to the party locally. He announces the formation of a new GOP lawyers' committee. Then come the door prizes, donated by local businesses and raffled off at the monthly meetings.

"We need door prizes to help us underwrite our costs," he says to the crowd. "Whatever you have, we need."

*

Whether talking policy with elected officials or performing the most mundane of political chores, Fuentes is the omnipresent party symbol: ushering fund-raisers, jawing to reporters, stroking volunteers.

By his own reckoning, Fuentes has presided over two or three political gatherings a week for the last 12 years. He regularly visits each of about 60 local Republican clubs. He has hosted fund-raisers for Reagan and Bush, as well as Gov. Pete Wilson and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Before Quayle flew in for a fund-raiser in late April, he called Fuentes. Fuentes called Newport Beach businessman John Crean. Quayle was greeted by a $1,000-per-couple affair at Crean's palatial home.

Fuentes presided.

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