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The Orange County Republican politicos love and hate

GOP enforcer Mike Schroeder is admired for his nuts-and-bolts work on campaigns. But critics say he can be ruthless when crossed.

January 07, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

It was a Halloween party for the reddest Republicans in Orange County, thrown by county GOP chief Scott Baugh.

Into the 2005 gathering strode Mike Schroeder, one of Orange County's most powerful and enigmatic Republican political players, cloaked as Star Wars' villain Darth Vader, black helmet and all.

"After we figured out who he was, we all got a good laugh," recalled political consultant Matt Cunningham. "But I think Mike got the biggest kick of all."

Schroeder, 50, revels in his reputation as the enforcer of Orange County Republican politics, acquaintances and party insiders say. It's a role that stretches back at least a decade to the days when Schroeder was climbing in the party ranks, eventually serving as the state chairman.

Working with candidates, often as an unpaid advisor, he has shaped many successful campaigns, formulating broad strategies as well as thinking out every detail. And for the last decade, he has been the power broker Orange County candidates must appeal to if they want the Republican Party's blessing -- and the big-business campaign contributions that come with it, Cunningham and others say. Schroeder can also be ruthless when crossed, say those who have stepped outside the party leadership's good graces.

A USC-trained lawyer who made his fortune selling malpractice insurance to chiropractors, Schroeder isn't hesitant to file lawsuits when he believes he has been wronged. In recent years, he has sued a former landlord, his home warranty company and an airline that lost his luggage. A decade ago, in a dispute involving a family business, he sued his own mother.

Among those Schroeder has helped put into office over the years are Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (now the mayor of Anaheim) and Baugh, who served in the Assembly before becoming the county party chairman.

At the local government level, Schroeder has focused on law enforcement races. Eight years ago, he helped Sheriff Mike Carona and Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas win office. Since then, he has served as a political advisor and sometimes spokesman for both men, helping them weather a series of controversies.

Schroeder's rise to prominence came with the wave of socially conservative Republicans who briefly assumed control of the Assembly in the mid-1990s, when Schroeder's protege, Pringle, became speaker.

His supporters say that Schroeder's critics resent his success. "If you are on the other side, you're not going to be pleased with people who are effective," said Doug Boyd, treasurer of the Los Angeles Lincoln Club and a 19-year acquaintance of Schroeder's. "Mike is effective."

Despite his many political victories, Schroeder has deeply divided the Orange County GOP leadership, many Republicans say.

Detractors say Schroeder leads a small cadre of party officials who effectively control who runs for office in Republican-dominated Orange County, shutting out credible and respected candidates who aren't in lock-step with his wing of the party.

Former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who retired in 1994, is one of many old-line Republicans who view the Schroeder-led "Republican mafia" with distaste. "He can kill you if you are a politician or a candidate," Ferguson said.

Critics point to Schroeder's central role last year in maneuvering an endorsement vote by the Orange County Central Committee for Carona, whom he helped put in office eight years earlier.

In March, when the committee first voted on endorsements, Schroeder pushed for Carona.

However, the two-term sheriff's tenure had been marked by controversy, including allegations of sexual misconduct and political cronyism, both of which Carona has denied. Many Republican leaders thought it was time for a change, and so were backing Lt. William Hunt, a 22-year deputy who also had the backing of rank-and-file deputies.

Hunt's supporters successfully urged the committee not to endorse anyone in the primary, a clear defeat for Schroeder and Carona.

But Schroeder refused to go down without a fight. He lined up enough votes to secure the endorsement for Carona and called for a second vote the following month. With the committee's stamp of approval, Carona went on to defeat Hunt and two other challengers in the primary with a 51% vote, thus avoiding a runoff.

The morning after the election, the sheriff put Hunt on administrative leave and later told him he was being reassigned as a patrol officer, with a substantial pay cut. Hunt took retirement rather than be demoted.

"It's not about whether a candidate is the best candidate," said Nancy Padberg, an Orange County lawyer who sits on the committee. "Schroeder's whole motivation is to keep his powerhouse going."

Tim Whitacre, a committee member who supported Hunt, is similarly critical. "Carona has been a fiasco and he needed to go," Whitacre said. "But for too long, folks just went along with Schroeder."

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