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Wealthy O.C. Republicans Try to Broaden the Party's Appeal

The State

Politics: New Majority's goal is to promote mainstream candidates in crucial primaries. But some critics say they are out of touch.

December 31, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When an upstart group of wealthy Orange County Republicans converged in early 2000 to broaden the appeal of California's minority party, it was quickly dismissed by party regulars.

Two years later, however, the so-called New Majority has become the state's largest Republican political action committee, centered in Orange County, the historic center of the state's GOP.

In that time, the New Majority's membership has more than doubled--from 44 to 110--with 14 members counted among Team 100, or those who have given $100,000 or more to the national Republican Party.

As it has grown, the organization also has riled some established Republicans, who have derided its politics and suggested that its wealthy leaders are out of touch with working-class Republicans.

Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren is one of the group's best-known members, which also include U.S. Ambassador to Spain George Argyros; Paul Folino, chief executive of Emulex Corp.; Don Beall, former chief executive of Rockwell; Henry Samueli, founder of technology giant Broadcom; and Nicolas Shahrestany, founder of Procom Technologies.

Each member pays $10,000 to be part of the New Majority, which hopes to expand into Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

The New Majority's goal--which has yet to fully gel--is to promote mainstream Republicans in critical GOP primaries, candidates they believe have better chances of winning against Democrats.

This year, the organization is lending its support to former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican candidate for governor who supports abortion rights and gun control, two positions that help set him apart from the two more conservative Republican gubernatorial candidates--businessman Bill Simon Jr. and Secretary of State Bill Jones.

Last month, the group formally endorsed Riordan. The endorsement came with $100,000, while individual members kicked in an additional $400,000. New Majority Treasurer Mark Chapin Johnson took the job as Riordan's state finance chairman.

About the same time, New Majority leadership helped carry out an internal takeover of the state GOP organized by Bush's California political strategist, Gerry Parsky. Structural changes adopted in October transferred party power from a core of conservative activists to a professional manager accountable to a board of directors, including a representative of the party's major donors.

"We needed to change the face and the tone of the party, and then the perception of voters," said Thomas E. Tucker of Newport Beach, the group's founding chairman, who will step down from that post in March. "It's happening."

State party leadership, while opposing the breadth of the October reforms, has welcomed the group's activism--and cash.

"They're a vital new element in the Republican Party," said California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel, an attorney from Palos Verdes. "They represent a new generation of entrepreneurs who will help make the Republican Party the major party in California in the next 10 years. Their timing was exquisite."

In its short history, the New Majority already has demonstrated that it can exert influence. Members raised $3 million for the Bush campaign in 2000, most of it during two high-profile fund-raisers in Orange County. Of seven legislative candidates the group backed in 2000, four won, including two moderate Assembly members from the generally conservative county: Tom Harman from Huntington Beach and Lynn Daucher from Brea. The group's local registration drive, co-sponsored with the Lincoln Club, signed up 27,000 new GOP voters.

But the group's fortunes--literally--drew scorn from some GOP quarters. Members were accused of trying to buy their way into politics, dismissively labeled as liberals and "Performing Arts Republicans"--a reference to the philanthropic generosity of founders Johnson and Tucker, among others.

"There is plenty of room in the big tent of the Republican Party for both rich men and working people to be active," local GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes wrote after the 2000 primary, calling the group an "insurgency [of] misled millionaires."

Group's Early Effort Misfired

Steel acknowledged that the group misfired early by backing a move to neutralize the influence of Fuentes and other conservatives on Orange County's central committee. The effort was "silly" and misdirected the group's energies, Steel said.

Tucker said he still believes the local party is in need of reform and must support more mainstream candidates who can unite voters. But starting at the top of the ticket is a better route, he said.

State Democrats also have watched the group with interest. Campaign director Bob Mulholland agreed with the need for more professional management at the state GOP. But that isn't enough by far to dislodge Democrats' statewide dominance, he said.

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