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O.C.'s Republican Chairman Steps Down

Thomas A. Fuentes, in the job for 20 years, had been urged to quit by those who feared his conservatism hurt the GOP.

March 16, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Orange County Republican chief Thomas A. Fuentes, who has led the local party for 20 years, stepped down as chairman Monday after months of stalling on a deal to replace him with former Assembly Republican leader Scott Baugh.

The resignation capped a months-long tug of war over how and when Fuentes, whose rigid conservative views had increasingly alienated the county's more liberal Republican business community, would leave the top party post. An early deal had Baugh taking over in January but Fuentes balked at leaving until after the March primary.

Fuentes said he would retire as chairman effective next month but would stay on as a committee member. He urged the election in April of Baugh, a conservative who has established friendships among all wings of the party.

"You've stood firm when special interests have attempted to move our community to the left," Fuentes told a packed Republican Central Committee meeting in an emotional half-hour farewell speech. He derided attempts to weaken the party by the "liberal moneyed elite" -- a reference to the New Majority, which has become the largest GOP political committee in the state -- and made it clear that his litmus test for loyalty was conservatism on both social and fiscal issues.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Law firm affiliations -- An article in Tuesday's California section about the resignation of Orange County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes incorrectly reported that his designated successor, Scott Baugh, worked for the law firm of former Democratic Assembly speakers Bob Hertzberg and Willie Brown. Baugh and Hertzberg are partners in Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw; Brown has no connection with the firm.

He became most emotional when recalling that "whenever Republicans gather, we begin our time together with prayer." The country and state is engaged in a cultural war, he said, with attacks from within on "our conservative social agenda."

"Orange County remains the anchor to the right for the California ship of state, no matter how strong the winds blow from the left in places like San Francisco and Hollywood," he said.

Fuentes' departure as chairman was long in coming. In 1998, several Republican business leaders asked him to groom a successor and serve only through 2000; he was elected chairman twice since. His 10th term as chairman would have ended in January 2005.

In recent years, the GOP commander snubbed the local campaign efforts of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a much more liberal Republican, and even angered operatives for President Bush. Business leaders complained that Fuentes' brand of social conservatism alienated female and minority voters and discouraged a healthy mix of candidates from vying in primaries.

Calls for Fuentes to step down gained strength in the last six months. Some Republican elected officials fretted that his hard-line views and off-putting manner limited his effectiveness in raising funds for key races and for turning out Republican vote margins needed to counterbalance Democratic majorities elsewhere in the state.

The state's two wealthiest GOP donor groups -- the New Majority and the Lincoln Club of Orange County -- are based locally but stopped giving money to the county party in 2000 in protest over Fuentes' handling of the party. Two years ago, the state party revamped its image with more moderate leadership.

Baugh, who noted that he has yet to be elected chairman, said he planned no major changes in the structure of the party, whose mission is to register GOP voters, get them to the polls and raise enough money to do so.

Under his chairmanship, all Republicans would be welcome regardless of differences in ideology, he said.

"Our party would be very small if it consisted only of conservatives," he said during a break in the meeting. "We need the full spectrum in our party to point our guns at the Democrats. That is unity."

Since Fuentes assumed the party chairmanship in 1984, the number of registered Republicans has grown dramatically. There are about 250,000 more GOP registered voters than Democrats, a margin that widened last year for the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Schwarzenegger.

Despite registration gains in the last three years, Fuentes so vexed state GOP staffers and supporters of President Bush that they went around him to set up their own local voter registration and fundraising. The situation 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 the governor.

Many Orange County elected officials said they were troubled by Fuentes' isolation from national and state party officials, particularly when they hoped to offer a unified front for the 2004 elections. State Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) said Fuentes' rigidity hurt fundraising. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), one of the first conservatives to back his longtime friend Schwarzenegger, said Fuentes had lost his patience for leadership and should look to new challenges.

Baugh, however, is roundly liked on both sides of the political aisle. A former Republican Assembly leader, he prospered in Sacramento despite spending most of his career under indictment for multiple campaign misconduct charges, which eventually were dismissed by a judge.

Baugh's perseverance and good relations with Democrats in Sacramento provided a measure of political redemption. He has proved himself a formidable fundraiser and chaired the Republican Leadership Forum, which raised money for GOP legislative candidates.

He has been Orange County's lobbyist to the Democratic-controlled state Legislature for two years and works for the law firm of former Democratic speakers Willie Brown and Bob Hertzberg.

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