County's Man in the Capital Has the Right Connections

Times County Bureau Chief

At the end of a big presentation on Orange County's transportation needs, a key Senate committee staff director looked around the table and asked James McConnell, the county's Washington lobbyist:

"Well, now, is this what you want, Jim?"

County officials seated with McConnell were impressed.

"If this is the kind of power we've bought (by hiring McConnell), we've gotten our money's worth," one county official said after the meeting.

Actually, the Senate staffer, Matt Scocozza, is McConnell's longtime friend and former co-worker at the Congressional Budget Office.

"We all laughed about it later," McConnell recalls. "He (Scocozza) was the perfect foil."

McConnell still calls on Scocozza for help. But now, several years after that Senate staff meeting, Scocozza is an assistant secretary of transportation in the Reagan Administration, which more directly influences specific project-funding decisions.

"He seems to know a large number of people there," Supervisor Harriett Wieder said recently. "His level of access is high, and that can't help but benefit the county."

According to Wieder, it was McConnell who recently spotted an obscure change in federal regulations that was going to cost the county $500,000 in grants for monitoring welfare cases. McConnell arranged meetings in Washington that led to the county getting the disputed funds.

"He knows that city, he knows the players," Wieder said. "He's very protective of the county's interests. I wonder how we got along before we had a Washington representative."

Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) said he sees a lot more of McConnell than the lobbyist from Los Angeles County, where most of his district is situated.

"He's been a big help on the Santa Ana River Flood Control Project," said Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad), a member of the important House Public Works Committee. "He comes prepared. He does his homework. He knows how the system works, and that's always appreciated."

This from highly aggressive political figures about a small, soft-voiced, little-known lawyer who bears a slight physical resemblance to television detective Remington Steele (actor Pierce Brosnan).

Geography has played no small role. McConnell, 38, has spent nearly his entire adult life in Washington.

Degree in Law

After obtaining a bachelor's degree from Cleveland's John Carroll University, McConnell graduated from American University's Washington College of Law in Washington in 1975.

He immediately turned to the administrative side of politics for a paycheck, serving in a succession of jobs on Capitol Hill, from legislative aide to a Pennsylvania congressman to counsel for the House Select Committee on Committees, where he met former Rep. Jerry M. Patterson (D-Santa Ana).

Attorney Verlyn (Sonny) Jensen of Santa Ana was Patterson's chief of staff at the time, and eventually Jensen, McConnell and former Board of Supervisors aide Greg Sanders became partners in their own law firm. The partnership gave McConnell the role of county lobbyist after the firm won the contract for representing both the Board of Supervisors and the Orange County Transportation Commission.

So far, the most controversial aspect of McConnell's work has not been his legislative advocacy but rather his relationship with Patterson.

Patterson a Lobbyist

Defeated last year by conservative Republican firebrand Robert K. Dornan, Patterson joined the Washington-based Leff & Mason law firm as a lobbyist for several corporate clients, such as Great Western Savings & Loan Assn.

Earlier this year, Jensen, Sanders and McConnell also joined Leff & Mason, which has offices in Beverly Hills and Costa Mesa.

Patterson is considering a bid for county supervisor in next June's election. Current board members and the county's congressmen, all Republicans, have nothing against McConnell, who is also a Republican, but they believe it's improper for the county to contract with Leff & Mason for representation in Washington while Patterson is a candidate for public office.

Until Patterson recently took himself out of the running for Dornan's seat, Dornan had threatened to boycott McConnell.

Patterson has said he will quit the law firm if he does indeed become a candidate.

Not Known to All

Meanwhile, McConnell is not well known to all of the county's congressmen. Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) said he can't remember ever meeting with McConnell except on a day when a Times reporter visited Badham's office and McConnell was there with Wieder.

"Badham travels a lot, so I deal almost entirely with his staff," McConnell said.

Inside Badham's office, he and Wieder briefed Badham about the issue of air pollution caused by offshore oil drilling. McConnell had gone to the airport at 8 a.m. that same day to pick up Wieder and whisk her off to meetings with Department of Interior and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials.

Wieder attempted to name all of the officials involved in the meetings for Badham, but she got them confused. McConnell corrected her, substituting the right names even as Wieder spoke.

"That's part of a lobbyist's job," McConnell joked later. "You can't tell the players without a score card around here, and we supply the score card."

Still Not Unpacked

When a county supervisor comes to Washington, McConnell said, "Everything has to go into suspended animation."

Although he has been with Leff & Mason since April, McConnell still has not unpacked all the boxes in his small, fourth-floor office, just down the hall from Patterson's, on Pennsylvania Avenue a block from the White House.

Wearing a dark, pin-striped suit and a burgundy tie, McConnell rocked gently in his chair as he sat at his Oriental-style desk, his American University diploma hanging on the wall nearby.

Nearby werea small stereo, a television and stacks of the Congressional Quarterly in a box on the floor, which is covered with an Oriental rug.

Orange County is a much smaller player on the national scene than at the level of state government, McConnell said, so the county's reputation as a conservative Republican stronghold and home base for right-wing extremists is not as big a problem as it might be without both a Republican-controlled Senate and White House.

"Sometimes it makes it tough, when you are trying to explain something," he said.

Initial Reactions

McConnell cited a visit to Washington three years ago by Supervisor Roger Stanton, who was distributing information about the county's then-innovative program to detect welfare fraud.

"You know, the initial reaction from people was this is just some sort of kooky Orange County, California, plot to eliminate welfare in the country . . . but then when they looked at it . . . it got a good hearing. But I mean, I think you do have kind of an initial resistance from Democratic staff people. . . .

"On the other hand, when you are dealing with, when you are in the Senate . . . you certainly don't get any animosity when you mention you are from Orange County."

Referring to former cabinet secretary Craig Fuller and other one-time Orange County political figures, McConnell added:

"Certainly we've got access to the White House . . . particularly a California White House, because so many of the people over there are from Orange County and Southern California."

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