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Los Angeles Times Interview

John Herrington

Working to Lock In GOP Gains in California

August 11, 1996|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a political writer for The Times

WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. — When John Herrington was chosen chairman of the California Republican Party in early 1995, many asked, "Who is John Herrington?"

Unlike most of his predecessors, Herrington, 57, of Walnut Creek in Contra Costa County, was not a well-known, out-front political activist, even though he had worked eight years in the Reagan administration and had served four of those years as secretary of energy.

Herrington was elected vice chairman of the California Republican Party in 1993, thus putting him in line for the No. 1 spot two years later. At the time, the party was in shambles, following devastating losses in the 1992 elections.

As vice chairman, Herrington worked quietly and out of the spotlight to help rebuild the party for the 1994 elections. He succeeded to the chairmanship following the dramatic GOP successes of 1994.

Herrington used his position to build the party's professionalism and to mute the fractious differences within the state Republican Party--primarily the moderate wing of Pete Wilson and the religious and social conservatives who had warred bitterly with the governor on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Herrington was born in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of Stanford University and the law school at UC San Francisco. He first served as a deputy district attorney in Ventura County, then went into private practice, specializing in corporate, real estate, tax and business law.

Herrington joined the Reagan administration in 1981 as a White House aide. He later became assistant secretary of the Navy, then energy secretary in 1985. Following his tenure in Washington, he served two years as chairman of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., the giant publishing firm, overseeing a $2.8-billion restructuring of the company.

Along the way, Herrington fulfilled a longtime fantasy by developing an award-winning restaurant, Vic Stewart's, in the restored Walnut Creek railroad station. Herrington is married to Lois Haight, a Contra Costa County superior-court judge. They have two daughters, Lisa Marie, a minister, and Victoria, who works as communications director for the state GOP.

Today, Herrington faces another difficult task: helping Bob Dole carry California in the 1996 election over Democrat Bill Clinton and to build on GOP successes in the Legislature and Congress. He talked about the job over lunch at Vic Stewart's (named for a grandfather) and in his office nearby, heavily decorated with plaques and photos of Reagan and other major political figures.

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Question: What sort of convention are you expecting?

Answer: I think the convention will have a certain amount of contentious activity. We're not a party that agrees on everything. Abortion is one big issue, but there are others. I expect these to be fought out--these various differences. After all, we had nine candidates who wanted to be president.

Q: Is that necessarily a bad thing?

A: No. It's a good thing. I would rather do it that way than be like the Democrats, who don't allow debate, especially on the abortion issue. It's part of the system. The party has to have the argument and decide where it is, rather than have somebody dictate it. And it has to be in a public forum. . . .

Q: About two-thirds of the California delegation identify themselves as supportive of abortion rights. You have Gov. Pete Wilson on that side and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren on the other. How do you keep the delegation together and focused on the main point to elect Bob Dole?

A: The delegation is a Bob Dole delegation. It is there to support Bob Dole, and every delegate is pledged to support Bob Dole. So I don't think there is any problem in controlling the delegation. They know what their job is.

Q: What is there for the delegation to do other than vote for Bob Dole and his vice-presidential nominee?

A: Conventions are, and always have been, tremendous social events. There are chances to schmooze Republicans from all over the country and talk policy and argue and get the work of the Republican Party done. A lot of that goes on. I think the formal workings of the delegation are very limited for a slate that is pledged.

Q: It seems each time Dole comes to California, his poll numbers slip, vis a vis Clinton, up to 27 points in the last Times poll. What is his problem in California? Can he win the state?

A: First of all, I don't have a lot of confidence in the polls. Over my 30 years of politics, I have seen polls in California, such as the Field poll, predict Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter being in a dead-heat the day before the election in 1980. As you remember, it was a blowout. The same poll said Wilson couldn't be governor.

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