The Los Angeles political consultant reached across a table covered with campaign literature and shook hands with a tall black man in a three-piece suit.
"Congratulations!" she said. "You've come a long way, baby!"
"Who didn't?" a smiling Eldridge Cleaver replied. At 50, the ex-convict and former Black Panther Party leader recently became a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
He was in Newport Beach on Friday night, one of seven Republican Senate candidates who passed out brochures and spoke at a California Republican Assembly forum at the Balboa Bay Club.
As someone who only joined the race three weeks ago, Cleaver is still a minor candidate. But he was the center of attention before the speeches began. Reporters, camera crews and intrigued Republicans surrounded his small table, asking questions and requesting autographs.
"I've wanted to meet you for a long time. I read 'Soul on Ice' (Cleaver's first book) when I was in high school," said Marlo Lewis, a political analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Larry Odom, a field engineer with a television crew, grabbed Cleaver's hand and wished him luck. "I'm a former Panther myself," Odom said.
Once a fist-waving, white-baiting militant, Cleaver presented a radically different image Friday: that of a thoughtful man, a strong anti-communist and a Ronald Reagan Republican who could laugh about his past.
His hair was cropped close and his mustache was trimmed. In the lapel of his gray, three-piece suit, Cleaver wore a small American flag.
And when he spoke, his Republican audience frequently interrupted his remarks on abortion, the Philippines and the United Nations with applause.
Stances on Abortion, Philippines
- On abortion, Cleaver said he was a pro-life candidate who was deeply concerned about "immorality." Abortion, he said, "is systematically interfering with the chain of life itself."
- On the aftermath of elections in the Philippines, he said: "Anybody who believes that by putting (opposition leader Corazon) Aquino into office is going to get rid of communism is very naive." Communism, he said, "will gobble up much more (under Aquino) than under Marcos."
- On the United Nations, he said the United States should remain a member but should form a caucus just for democratic nations. "It's OK to maintain relations (with communist nations) as long as we realize we're dealing with the devil."
Cleaver's fellow Republicans said they were impressed.
State Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), another Senate candidate, recalled a night in the '60s when he was the Los Angeles police chief and Cleaver and several other Panther members were arrested after a shoot-out with police.
"I would much rather fight Mr. Cleaver with ballots rather than bullets," Davis said.
Again and again, county Republicans said they were amazed by Cleaver's moderate style.
"What is so hard to get used to is seeing a graying and balding Eldridge Cleaver--but then I, too, am graying and balding," said Thomas A. Fuentes, 37, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Orange County.
Cleaver, meanwhile, said he was thankful that people could "be objective" about his past and "not hold a grudge."
He said he lives quietly now. He earns a living in Berkeley by lecturing, trimming trees and making flower pots, and he has worked hard in that city to fight a city council that is "controlled by communists."
Cleaver, a 1968 Peace and Freedom candidate for president, said he had been doing some "rethinking recently." He had concluded that the Democratic Party did not help blacks but instead harnessed them to the welfare system. Since 1980, he had supported Ronald Reagan for president and now wanted to help provide leadership in the Republican Party.
"This is America. It's good to have a country where it's flexible, where you can rise to the top," Cleaver said.