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Conroy's Obscene Gesture at Rival Shocks GOP Rally

Politics: O.C. assemblyman says he's 'fed up' at Spitzer's references to harassment charges. Party onlookers left agape.

September 20, 1996|LEN HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO — Controversial Assemblyman Mickey Conroy, a candidate for Orange County supervisor, shocked onlookers at a Republican Party headquarters rally this week by flipping off--and some say shouting profanities at--his opponent.

Conroy, 68, an assemblyman from Orange since 1991 who is leaving the state Capitol because of term limits, acknowledged that he gave the finger to his rival, Todd Spitzer, a deputy district attorney.

But he said Spitzer deserved it for "spreading innuendoes about Mickey Conroy that are not true."

At campaign events, Spitzer, 35, has repeatedly referred to Conroy's upcoming sexual harassment trial, Conroy said. A former legislative intern has claimed she was fired after complaining that Conroy was forcing her to give him hugs, back rubs and kisses.

Conroy maintains he is innocent of the charges, but said Spitzer's constant references to it has upset his wife of 40 years.

"I'm just fed up," Conroy said. "If he wants to get personal with my wife, then I'm going to get personal with him. We have been married for 40 years. We don't have to take this stuff."

Diane Brooks said she was at the opening of the South Orange County Republican Party headquarters Tuesday when Conroy approached Spitzer shortly after both had addressed the crowd. Brooks said Conroy raised both middle fingers at Spitzer and began shouting expletives at him.

"There was Conroy with both fingers up in the air," said Brooks, 53, of Lake Forest, a candidate for the Saddleback Community College District board of trustees. "I walked away I was so embarrassed. I have no idea why he did it."

Another flabbergasted onlooker was Emily Sanford of Huntington Beach, the GOP central committee's longtime sergeant at arms. Sanford said she had never seen anything like Conroy's actions at a party function, but she did not hear the profanity.

"I think it's unfortunate," said Sanford, 61. "My concern is that these are two Republicans and I don't like that kind of behavior."

If the action had occurred at a county Central Committee meeting, where she is in charge of keeping order, Sanford said she would have quickly "asked them both to step outside so I could talk to them."

Spitzer, 35, who is also a trustee of the Brea Olinda Unified School District, denies he has paid special attention to the sexual harassment issue. Spitzer said Conroy is getting nervous because he is losing voters.

Some political analysts had predicted Conroy would win the supervisorial seat in the county's nonpartisan 3rd District race in the March primary, but the assemblyman was forced into a runoff when he captured only 23% of the vote while Spitzer won 18%. On Monday, Conroy failed in his attempt to win an endorsement from the county GOP. The Republican leadership was split between him and Spitzer.

Spitzer said Conroy, who made national headlines earlier this year for a failed attempt to pass a law that would require paddling of graffiti vandals and students, has lost control of himself.

"The guy is going bonkers," said Spitzer, who filed an unsuccessful complaint with the county party's ethics committee over the incident.

"Within minutes after I spoke, the guy comes up and starts berating me. I'm worried he's going to have a heart attack," Spitzer said. "This is just the culmination of the fact that he is realizing the support he is counting on is drying up."

As Spitzer described the incident, he was talking to Brooks when he noticed Conroy a few feet away "flipping me off."

"I asked him if he was flipping me off and he said, 'You bet,' " Spitzer said.

Conroy's campaign consultant, Mark Thompson, said the assemblyman quickly left the headquarters after the incident, but not before calling Spitzer "a damn Democrat," a reference to Spitzer's once working for Art Torres, the current chairman of the state Democratic Party.

"Mickey told [Spitzer] the day after the election he's going to walk away with a $90,000 headache," Thompson said. That is the amount of Spitzer's own money Thompson believes will be spent during the campaign.

Thompson also downplayed the significance of the incident, suggesting that "anyone who has driven the freeway has flipped somebody off."

"The question is, did he deserve it or not?" Thompson said.

Spitzer's ethics complaint, which included his charge that Conroy was pulling down his campaign signs, was rejected Thursday by the ethics committee chairman, who said he has no jurisdiction because the race is nonpartisan.

It is yet unclear how voters in the sprawling supervisorial district will react. The district covers a widespread portion of the county containing about 270,000 voters from La Habra and Brea in the north to Lake Forest and Mission Viejo in the south. The seat is held by Don Saltarelli, who was appointed to replace Gaddi H. Vasquez. Vasquez resigned from the board in the wake of the bankruptcy.

Political consultants agree that Conroy's actions won't help him, but differ about how much it will hurt.

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