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GOP's Fuentes Favored to Win 7th Term Chairing O.C. Party

Politics: Vote is unlikely to be unanimous. Some criticize his style and conservatism, but others praise his effectiveness as a leader.

January 19, 1997|LEN HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Thomas A. Fuentes, a descendant of Mexican immigrants, will be the overwhelming favorite to win an unprecedented seventh consecutive term as chairman of the county Republican Party Monday night at the Westin South Coast Plaza.

The gregarious Fuentes, 48, a former radio show host, county supervisor's aide and seminary student, has won national acclaim for building the local GOP into perhaps the strongest Republican Party organization in the country.

But unlike most years, this vote is not likely to be unanimous.

Fuentes, an unabashed hard-line conservative, has made some ardent enemies who don't like his hardball tactics. That, coupled with the good showing made by President Clinton and the Democrats in Orange County last November, has some Republican officials claiming Fuentes has overstayed his welcome.

"We have got to discourage Fuentes' machine-type politics in Orange County," said Gil Ferguson, a former state assemblyman from Newport Beach who last year won a seat on the county's GOP central committee. "That's the kind of thing that is starting to turn off the voters."

Another central committee member, William A. Dougherty of Villa Park, is more blunt. Dougherty, targeted by Fuentes last October for expulsion from the committee because he endorsed Clinton, charges that Fuentes "has no honor" and demanded he withdraw from the chairmanship race.

In a stinging four-page letter sent to Fuentes last week, Dougherty, a former Marine colonel, derides the chairman as "Tio Thomas" (Uncle Tom) and claims most of the committee members are "an incestuous mob of fellow sycophants who are either on the public payroll as assistants to some Republican office holder, or fat cat corporation lobbyists."

"Your leadership and your bigoted right wing of the party has led us down the path to defeat," said Dougherty, who will attend the Clinton inauguration and miss the GOP meeting. "For years, our representatives have been a laughingstock in Sacramento. Worse, they have been absolutely ineffective."

Fuentes, a Lake Forest resident who was ill with the flu last week, could not be reached for comment. But many local party officials dismiss Ferguson and Dougherty as malcontents.

Doy Henley, the chairman of the powerful Lincoln Club of Orange County, a conservative political organization, said the entire leadership of the party is backing Fuentes. Fuentes, who took over from eight-year chairwoman Lois Lundberg in 1985, has been a standout, Henley said.

"Nobody has ever come close to doing the job of county chair as Tom Fuentes has done," Henley said. "He has certainly marshaled the troops, raised the money and done the best we can in all areas . . . It's an awesome job, a very difficult one."

Fuentes was also lauded for his ability to continue to get Republicans elected to nearly every partisan county office and for building the GOP's vast advantage in registered voters in Orange County. There are 656,000 registered Republicans in the county, compared to 418,000 registered Democrats.

"I support Tom wholeheartedly for the simple reason that he does such an outstanding job," said Jo Ellen Allen of Corona del Mar, the party's first vice chairwoman. "I don't know of any county party in the state, and probably few across the country, that is as well organized, as well funded and that functions as well as ours.

"It certainly is not one person who does it all, but things rise and fall on leadership, and the leadership that Tom has provided is to a large extent what has made our party what it is."

Central committee member Jacob F. "Jim" Rems of Irvine, a representative of the 70th Assembly District, is expected to be nominated to oppose Fuentes, but few people expect him to mount a serious challenge.

The party, which meets at 7 p.m., also will elect its other officers. Due to time constraints, John M.W. Moorlach, Orange County's treasurer-tax collector, is not expected to run again for party treasurer.

Because of the Clinton inauguration, the county Democratic Party postponed its new organizational meeting until Monday, Jan. 27.

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