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DECISION '98

Democrats Dare to Hope

Despite Some Gains, Fractured Party Structure Makes Further Progress Difficult

June 04, 1998|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's not like they aren't out there. There are nearly twice as many registered Democrats in Orange County--400,000 of them--as there are in San Francisco, for Pete's sake.

So where are they?

The offices of the Democratic Party in Santa Ana were dark on primary election night. Instead, longtime county Democratic coordinator Marti Schrank and others made a series of pilgrimages between candidates' homes and union halls.

"We're pooling our resources for November," Schrank said.

These could be hopeful times for the party that has been on the losing side for 20 long years in the Republican bastion.

Demographics are changing, bringing in new Latino voters who feel shut out by the white conservative Republicans.

Loretta Sanchez snatched a key congressional seat away from one of the GOP's most abrasive mouthpieces, Robert K. Dornan, two years ago, and Lou Correa has an excellent chance of ousting Jim Morrissey from the Legislature this year.

As Susan Freeze, a member of the county Democratic Central Committee, put it this week: "I got a taste of blood two years ago, and I want more. I see immense possibilities, absolutely."

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But she and others acknowledge that this is still a tough place to be a member of the party of Clinton. "In Orange County, nobody wants to get out there and run because, well, nobody likes to get killed," Freeze said.

Fact is, in spite of all those registered Democrats, there are still a lot more GOP voters. The county is 51.7% Republican to 32% Democrat as of last December, according to the county registrar of voters' office.

Combine that with a fractured local party organization that seems to endorse losers even in its own primary races, and the glimmers of hope can translate into shots in the dark for critics and steadfast backers alike.

"The Democrats who've done well have not been endorsed by the county party or gotten any party help. They're cults of personality who through sheer force of will get elected," said registered Democrat Mark Petracca, chair of UC Irvine's political science department.

He pointed to Democratic hopeful William McKie as an example of "the performance inadequacy of Orange County Democrats." McKie didn't gather enough signatures to get on the ballot for the 70th Assembly District this year. "It's not rocket science to get on a ballot," Petracca said. "How do you spell 'Ouch?' "

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Schrank, who is widely admired for her tireless volunteer efforts for Democrats for two decades, retorted, "Words are easy . . . but once you get in there and really work to try to change things, you realize how hard it is. We do the best we can with what we've got."

There was a time, in 1978, when Democrats at least had an equal share of power in the beach-side and inland communities here. They held a majority on the Board of Supervisors and represented county districts in the state Legislature and in Congress, said real estate developer Howard Adler, founder of the campaign fund-raising Democratic Foundation.

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But their influence has declined steadily since. "Overall, I'd say this county is going to remain a Republican stronghold for a long time, for another generation at least," Adler said.

Still, he said, Democrats should be able to capture more seats in Santa Ana, Anaheim and other areas where minority candidates will do well.

Mike Matsuda, for instance, may have a shot, Adler said. Matsuda is running this fall against Ken Maddox in the 68th Assembly District, which is largely within Sanchez's congressional district lines.

Mission Viejo real estate magnate Dick O'Neill, another big contributor to the Democratic Foundation, stood in Democrat Joe Dunn's Santa Ana living room with dozens of others from his party Tuesday night, watching televised results. On the air was Democrat Patricia Neal, a Huntington Beach real estate agent who will run against Dana Rohrabacher in the 45th Congressional District this fall.

"Not a chance," O'Neill said bluntly of Neal. Just then Neal told a news commentator, "I think I stand a very good chance."

O'Neill smiled. "Well, she says she has a chance, so maybe she does."

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Neal is using the same political consultants that Sanchez did in 1996. And like Sanchez, she didn't get the official support of the county Democratic Party, though many said they were delighted that she chose to run in a heavily Republican district.

Endorsement from the county Democrats may be more curse than blessing. Sanchez didn't get the party nod; primary opponent Jim Prince did, after extensive schmoozing with party regulars. But she won the primary anyway.

This year, A.R. Groom of Cerritos beat party pick Charlie Ara to run against U.S. Rep. Ed Royce. Asked if the county Democratic party had supported her, Groom said, "Not quite."

Longtime Democrat Marie H. Fennell, who was pressured by county leadership not to run in the 67th Assembly District, withdrew, then reentered the race last week and trounced party pick Rima Nashashibi.

"All my senior citizen friends urged me to run, so I did," said Fennell, who lives in a Huntington Beach retirement community. "And they all came out and voted for me."

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O'Neill said that even if county Democrats annoy each other by not being unified, in the end, "we annoy the Republicans--that's what we're good at."

Schrank, for instance, is proud of the "rapid response" annoyance tactic she spearheaded against the GOP when Dornan boasted two years ago that his congressional race wouldn't be over until the fat lady sang.

Schrank mobilized a trio of self-described "fat ladies" to serenade Dornan at his Garden Grove office the next day.

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