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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES

County Democrats Have Chance to Regain Lost Competitive Status

Local party has missed opportunities, but taking some stands and giving voters a choice just might work.

August 13, 2000|FRED SMOLLER | Fred Smoller is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, and director of the Ludie and David C. Henley Social Sciences Survey Research Laboratory

What is the state of the Democratic Party in Orange County as the national party prepares to meet in Los Angeles this week? In the post-Watergate era, Democrats were a plurality of registered voters in the county for a time. By 1980, the Republican and Democrat parties each had 45% of the electorate (10% were independent). Today, 50% of the county's registered voters are Republicans, 32% are Democrats and 18% are independents.

Democrats have made some important gains recently. They now occupy one congressional seat (Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove), one Assembly seat (Lou Correa of Anaheim) and one state Senate seat (Joe Dunn of Santa Ana). The fact that the Democrats control state government should bode well for the local party. The Democrats will control redistricting, which should result in more competitive Assembly and state Senate districts. The Democratically controlled Legislature will now have more funds to dispense to previously ignored areas such as Orange County. Finally, should a member of the Board of Supervisors leave office prematurely, his or her successor would be a Democrat--appointed by the governor.

Current trends and local issues also seem to be breaking well for Democrats. The Democratic Party long has been the party of diversity, and Orange County is becoming increasingly diverse. Latinos--the fastest-growing ethnic group--are registering Democratic 9 to 1, and the once solidly Republican Vietnamese community is increasingly voting Democratic. Latinos have not yet forgotten that the local Republican Party hired poll guards in 1988 to harass Latino voters, or the attempt to deny Sanchez her seat. Recent Orange County polls suggest that on issues such as gun control, abortion, tolerance toward gays and concern for the environment, Orange County voters are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party than with the social conservatives who dominate the local Republican Party.

Democrats believe government can be a constructive force in society. So do an increasing numbers of voters. Up until their convention, Republicans argued that government invariably was bad and needed to be restrained. Similarly, Democrats are less enthusiastic about deregulation and privatization. Orange County's experience with HMOs, toll roads, polluted beaches and the deregulation of the electric power industry has caused many to question free market solutions. The road ahead toward a truly competitive Democratic Party in Orange County will not be an easy one. Republicans control the rest of the county's congressional and state legislative delegation, as well as the bulk of nonpartisan local offices, including all five seats on the Board of Supervisors.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats are deeply divided, but the Democrats are in worse shape because they have fewer resources. Unlike the Republicans, where power is centered in the county central committee, power in the Democratic party is dispersed among a series of Assembly district committees, clubs and other organizations such as the Democratic Foundation. These groups sometimes work at cross-purposes. A decentralized power structure is more democratic, but it comes at the expense of effectiveness. In addition, the Democrats have missed some important party-building opportunities.

In order to be successful, a political party must take stands on the critical issues of the day. For example, the most important issue facing Orange County voters these past few years has been the proposed El Toro airport. No issue since the bankruptcy has so captured and riveted voters' attention, especially in Republican-rich South County. While both parties were deeply divided on El Toro, the Democrats had much more to gain had they taken a strong public stand against the airport.

Instead, the party chose not to take a stand on El Toro. Similarly, a political party has to target vital races and win. Democrats failed to field a candidate for the nonpartisan Board of Supervisors in the race for the 4th District seat, which was won by Republican Cynthia Coad, or an especially strong candidate against Chuck Smith (1st District), who won handily against under-supported newcomer Eleazar Elizondo, despite the board's dismal approval ratings.

For now, the party needs to continue to prove that it can win. It needs to develop a bullpen of experienced candidates, and it must persuade local, state and national organizations and individuals to fund Democratic candidates and causes in Orange County. The alternative is a one-party system, which does not serve the community well. As in the private sector, competition tends to improve things. When there is no competition, the quality of the candidates, the level of discourse and the problem-solving energy our system needs to tackle tough issues declines. Voters soon lose interest and tune out. A viable alternative to the local Republican Party is in everyone's interest.

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