Orange County Republican leaders delivered a narrow endorsement Monday to embattled Sheriff Michael S. Carona, one month after he lost the local party's backing in a close and contentious vote.
Carona, who will face three challengers in the June election, barely won the two-thirds support he needed for the party's endorsement. He fell one vote shy of gaining the endorsement in March.
Carona's campaign manager, former state Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange), said the action vindicated the sheriff.
"More than anything, it sets the record straight that Mike Carona is very popular with the Republican Party," Lewis said after an hourlong debate that featured impassioned pleas in favor of and against Carona.
Tim Whitacre, a party committee member and spokesman for rival candidate sheriff's Lt. William Hunt, said he was dismayed that the party endorsed anyone among four Republicans running for the seat: Carona, Hunt, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Cmdr. Ralph Martin and retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Alcaraz.
"This doesn't hurt our campaign, it hurts the party," Whitacre said after the meeting. "You saw people in the audience tonight you haven't seen in months."
Carona needed 43 votes out of 64 people who participated at Monday's meeting to win the endorsement, and received 44. Last month, 48 people out of a potential 70 committee members voted.
The earlier snub stung Carona, whose political career since his 1998 election has suffered from department scandals and allegations of sexual misconduct and political cronyism -- allegations he has denied. One of his hand-picked assistant sheriffs, George Jaramillo, goes on trial later this year on felony bribery and obstruction of justice charges.
Additionally, the state attorney general is investigating allegations that Carona sexually harassed two women and whether he improperly billed his election committee for $130,000 in expenses.
Carona also failed to win the endorsement of his rank-and-file deputies. Still, most local and state leaders have endorsed his campaign.
His supporters managed to maneuver a new vote by protesting statements made during the first vote by Whitacre, representing Carona's chief rival. They also contacted every central committee member and urged support for a new tally, this time favoring Carona.
Some committee members accused Carona supporters of manipulating party rules and members to get a new vote.
"It was the most underhanded example of a well-planned ambush ... in order to enable them the second opportunity to revote," committee member Cheryl Atkinson said. "I now have such a clear picture of the underhanded and dishonest lengths that Mike Carona's paid staff will go and do in order to get an endorsement. The fact that they are willing to split the Republican Party, cause division, and question Tim's longtime record of credibility was shocking."
Others also were critical of the process. Central committee member Mark Bucher, who urged Carona's backing in March, protested the new vote, calling it procedurally improper and a misuse of the party's committee system. Bucher was out of town for Monday's vote.
Several party members tried to persuade the committee to open the endorsement to any of the four candidates, not just Carona. Another attempt to endorse none of the candidates also failed.
Among those who spoke against a Carona endorsement was anti-illegal-immigration activist Lupe Moreno of Santa Ana, a candidate for state Senate. She said Carona angered Santa Ana Republicans by endorsing Nativo V. Lopez, a Democrat, for the Santa Ana school board, from which he was eventually recalled.
"What you're doing is totally wrong," Moreno told the committee. "Now here we are airing our dirty laundry."
Among those supporting Carona was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who conceded that Carona made mistakes but praised him for pledging to cooperate with federal immigration agents to deport illegal immigrants accused of crimes.
The endorsement, Rohrabacher said, "can't be based on the perfect person who doesn't exist versus someone who is there doing a good job and making progress in the direction we want to go."
Losing the GOP endorsement the first time was remarkable because the vote had been coordinated by Republican Party insiders Michael J. Schroeder and Jon Fleischman.
Schroeder, a former state GOP chairman, is Carona's campaign spokesman and Fleischman, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, is the former executive director of the state Republican Party.