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The Region

County Chairman Out of Sync With Governor-Elect

The Republican leader is distrusted by the Bush team, the state party and now the Schwarzenegger camp. Dare he run again?

October 27, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Two weeks before California's historic recall election and as gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger was gaining steam, Orange County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes stunned staffers by refusing to accept 5,000 "Join Arnold" signs that were delivered to county party headquarters. He ordered the signs removed, though the party routinely allowed candidates to store materials there.

When Schwarzenegger held a rally before thousands of supporters at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds on the Thursday before the election, Fuentes -- uninvited on stage -- paced at the rear of the crowd. By then, he'd been privately outspoken in his distaste for Schwarzenegger, even speculating that a victory by Democrat Cruz Bustamante would be better.

And amid the jubilation at the county Republican Party election-night fete in Costa Mesa celebrating the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, Fuentes never mentioned the victor, Schwarzenegger.

Now, as California Republicans celebrate this month's spectacular political coup, Fuentes is the odd man out.

It's familiar territory.

During the last three years, Fuentes so vexed state GOP staffers and supporters of President Bush that they have gone around him to set up their own local voter registration and fund-raising, according to a dozen Republican activists, most of whom asked to remain anonymous in what they described as a thorny family feud.

The situation has left Orange County, billed as America's most Republican county, in the awkward position of having a GOP chairman distrusted by the White House, the state party and now the incoming governor.

Tensions rose further last week after Fuentes mailed a fund-raising letter to local Republicans touting Orange County's record margin -- by some 340,000 votes -- for Schwarzenegger. Atop the letter was a photo of a smiling Fuentes and the governor-elect.

The photo was taken two years ago at a fund-raising luncheon for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach); there were no more recent photos of the two together. Use of the image was particularly galling, one insider said, because Fuentes had ordered a Schwarzenegger photo from the same event removed from the county party Web site last year, saying the actor was too liberal.

Many Orange County elected officials said they were troubled by Fuentes' isolation from national and state party leadership, particularly when they hoped to offer a unified front for next year's elections.

"The events of the last few years have been a step in the wrong direction," said Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine). "Tom's inability to welcome all Republican groups has hurt fund-raising for us, the elected officials. There's not a good working relationship between the White House and Tom, and the state party and Tom, and the governor-elect and Tom. That's a serious thing. That's not a good situation for Orange County to have that kind of reputation."

Fuentes has much to be proud of in his 20 years as county party chief, but he also should recognize that he's no longer as effective, said Rohrabacher, one of the first conservatives to back Schwarzenegger. The two largest Republican donor groups in the state are based in Orange County, for example; neither will give Fuentes money.

"After 20 years of being the diplomat, he's lost his patience and he's alienated people who expected to be treated with due respect," Rohrabacher said of Fuentes. "I'm not calling for Tom to step down [as chairman], but even George Washington understood the need for term limits. Maybe there are some new challenges that Tom needs to be looking at."

Fuentes has survived attacks of the long knives before. In 1990, Gov. Pete Wilson came to Fuentes' defense and helped him muster the votes on the 42-seat Central Committee for a fourth term. In 1998, Ackerman led a group that helped Fuentes deflect a second coup attempt by moderates unhappy with Fuentes' leadership.

Fuentes said he had no problem with Schwarzenegger or his staff and wished the new governor well. A perceived lack of enthusiasm on his part, he said, might have stemmed from his inability as party chairman to back a candidate before an official state party endorsement, which came Sept. 29.

"I'm as excited and as positive as I can be about our hopes for California with a new Republican governor," he said. "It's important that he succeed."

Fuentes said he hadn't decided whether he'd run for re-election to the GOP Central Committee in March, which would be his 11th two-year term. The period to file declarations of candidacy opened today. Candidates have until Dec. 5 to fulfill the qualification requirements.

"I so highly esteem Dana Rohrabacher and Dick Ackerman and the rest of our federal and state delegation, and I'm sure their concerns are noble and genuine," Fuentes said. "They love the same party I love. My time will come, I just don't know when. I have no desire to be here forever."

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