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John Schmitz; Former Right-Wing Congressman From Orange County

January 11, 2001|DAVID HALDANE and JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

John G. Schmitz, the ultraconservative Orange County politician whose fiery rhetoric and flamboyant antics defined right-wing Southern California Republicanism for nearly two decades, died Wednesday. He was 70.

"Congressman John G. Schmitz played a significant role as a state senator and a member of the House of Representatives during a very colorful era of politics in the Orange County community," Thomas Fuentes, Orange County Republican Party chairman, said in a statement released late Wednesday. "His sense of humor, intelligence and enthusiasm will long be remembered by his Orange County friends."

Schmitz, who associates said had been suffering from cancer, died about 1:45 p.m. in Washington, D.C., where he had lived for many years, according to a statement released by the Republican Party.

Schmitz was a Marine officer teaching other Marines at El Toro Marine Corps Base about the dangers of Communism in 1962 when an unexpected incident put him in the headlines for the first of many times. Using nothing more than the sheer authority of his voice, he disarmed an assailant who was stabbing a woman by the roadside near the base. Although the woman died, Schmitz's reputation as a hero--and the roots of his political career--were made.

The next time his picture was on the front page was in 1964 as Orange County's newest Republican state senator. He was reelected in 1966.

By then, Schmitz had attracted the support of such conservatives as fast-food magnate Carl Karcher, sporting goods heir Willard Voit and San Juan Capistrano rancher Tom Rogers. So when Orange County's conservative Rep. James B. Utt died and Republicans needed a successor, Schmitz--who had become a national director of the ultraconservative John Birch Society--was a natural choice. Using such slogans as "When you're out of Schmitz, you're out of gear," (a revision of a widely known beer slogan) the Wisconsin native won election in 1970.

Schmitz soon established himself as one of the country's most right-wing, outspoken congressmen and enraged his most famous constituent, part-time San Clemente resident President Richard Nixon.

Of Nixon's historic visit to China, Schmitz, who considered the visit a sellout, quipped, "I have no objection to President Nixon going to China. I just object to his coming back."

The congressman's fellow Birchers laughed, but the president was not amused. By Election Day, neither was Schmitz, who lost his seat to a more moderate candidate.

In 1972, after Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot by a would-be assassin, Schmitz was drafted by Wallace's American Independent Party to run against Nixon for president. He collected more than 1 million votes but lost much of his Orange County support.

"He was operating on a higher level of politics than any of us had the guts for," said former Schmitz campaign treasurer Tom Rogers.

In 1978, Schmitz won a second state Senate seat, representing Newport Beach as a Republican. By then, though, caustic remarks about Jews ("Jews are like everybody else, only more so"), Latinos ("I may not be Hispanic, but I'm close. I'm Catholic with a mustache"), and blacks ("Martin Luther King is a notorious liar") had grown so outrageous that he eventually lost the support of the John Birch Society, which dumped him.

He also got into trouble with feminist attorney Gloria Allred after criticizing her support of abortion rights by calling her a "slick, butch lawyeress." A lawsuit she filed resulted in a $20,000 judgment against him and a public apology. Schmitz drew fire as well by issuing a press release referring to the audience at a series of hearings he headed on abortion as consisting of "hard, Jewish and [arguably] female faces."

But the scandal that ultimately brought his downfall was the 1982 revelation that the politician who so loudly espoused family values had a secret life that included a pregnant mistress and a young son.

But there was to be another scandal involving his family. In 1997, his 35-year-old daughter, Mary Kay LeTourneau, a teacher, was convicted of carrying on a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old student whose two children she ultimately bore. LeTourneau is serving a prison sentence.

Schmitz is to be buried Monday at Arlington National Cemetery.

*

Times staff writer David Reyes and Nancy Wride and correspondent Pamela Warrick contributed to this report.

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