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Ex-Marine’s Mission in Life: Oust Tom Hayden : VFW’s Mickey Conroy Lost a Battle in Sacramento, but the War’s Far From Over

Times Staff Writer

For the aging former soldiers who had challenged Tom Hayden’s fitness to be a state lawmaker during the past five years, the big day at the state Capitol had finally arrived.

Single file, in near march step, six partially uniformed men and a woman followed Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) last Monday into the large room where Gov. George Deukmejian holds his periodic press conferences. In a few hours, the Assembly would vote on Hayden’s qualifications to serve.

The veterans took their places on the stage. Then a diminutive gray-haired man with a red, white and blue tie and a button-laden Veterans of Foreign Wars service cap approached a microphone to begin making introductions.

“Can you tell us who you are,” interrupted a television reporter, shouting from the back of the packed auditorium.

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“Oh, I’m Mickey Conroy,” said the speaker, repeating his name slowly and exaggerating the pronunciation for anyone who might need to spell it phonetically.

“Mickey Con-Roy. I’m the one Tom Hayden has always said is all by his lonesome,” he added, gesturing toward the lawmakers, including Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and the veterans’ leaders he had introduced.

In truth, Hayden--the Democratic assemblyman from Santa Monica who survived a move last week to remove him from office because of allegedly traitorous acts during the Vietnam War--hasn’t always dismissed Conroy in such a manner.

When reporters first asked Hayden in 1983 about the retired Marine Corps major from Santa Ana who was demanding his ouster, Hayden said he had never heard of Conroy or the obscure group he headed, the Armed Forces Retirees Assn. of California (AFRAC).

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But that was during Hayden’s first year as a state legislator.

Today, Conroy, 58, is still little known to the general public. But he has become a well-known figure with legislators, Capitol staffers and state officials, not only for his work in trying to oust Hayden but also for his activities on a variety of veterans’ issues.

Some say Conroy, who flew combat missions in Vietnam, is the most influential person in the 98,000-member state VFW organization, although he has never held a major office within the group. VFW officeholders concede Conroy plays a major role in setting the organization’s conservative political agenda and in helping to appoint its commanders, vice commanders and other high-ranking posts.

Conroy says such talk is flattering, but adds, “I’m just a simple tool.”

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If he gets respect within the VFW, he said, it is because he is a hard worker who spends a great deal of time monitoring legislation that affects veterans, and also because he is president of two other groups: AFRAC and the California War Veterans for Justice (CWVJ).

The 5-foot, 6-inch Conroy, who has a folksy manner, is the one and only president of both AFRAC, which was formed in 1973, and CWVJ, which was formed 10 years later. Neither group is recognized by Congress or the Veterans Administration as an official veterans group with a congressional charter.

Even without official recognition, however, public disclosure documents filed with the Secretary of State and the Justice Department’s Registry of Charitable Trust show that each year Conroy’s two organizations raise and spend well over a quarter of a million dollars between them. Their mailings and correspondence reach more than 600,000 people annually, documents show.

AFRAC, which claims only 600 members, sends out a monthly 6-to-12-page newsletter that Conroy mimeographs in his garage in Santa Ana. Capitol critics jokingly refer to it as “Conroy’s Comics.”

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But CWVJ uses the same Sacramento-based professional mailing, advertising and fund-raising outfit that conservative state Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora) utilizes for his anti-gun control, anti-abortion and anti-detente messages. Conroy said his group’s membership consists of anyone who sends in a contribution.

Singleness of Purpose

Any doubts about Conroy’s singleness of purpose, however, are quickly erased by page after page of entries in the official spending reports of the group’s political action committee. Marked with a rubber stamp, they all read: “In opposition of Assemblyman Tom Hayden.”

Around the Capitol, Conroy said both his admirers and detractors think of him as the “leader of that crazy bunch of retirees from Orange County” who will not be silenced. That image is fine with him, he said.

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Leaders of groups whose membership are limited to veterans of the Vietnam conflict have little use for Conroy, who belittles any suggestion that Agent Orange affected anyone and opposes any monument or programs specifically for Vietnam veterans.

Ever since Hayden was elected to the Legislature in 1982, Conroy’s driving passion has been to oust the former anti-war leader and “Chicago Seven” defendant from office.

Before hardly anyone else knew it existed, Conroy began citing a provision of the California Constitution that states that anyone who “advocates the support of a foreign government” during hostilities is ineligible for state office or employment.

The federal Constitution has no similar prohibition. And, no one has ever been removed from the state Legislature under the provision, which was approved as an initiative by California voters in 1952.

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Insists on Removal

Still, Conroy says Hayden, whom he calls “Viet Cong Tom” in his AFRAC newsletter, should be removed from office under the provision.

After Hayden was first elected, Conroy fired off telegrams to then-Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian and Secretary of State March Fong Eu, saying that Hayden--who traveled to Hanoi and whose anti-war statements were broadcast over Communist government-owned radio stations during the Vietnam War--should not be seated in the Legislature.

In the months that followed, Conroy, through his mailings, spearheaded a petition drive demanding that the Assembly itself remove Hayden. The more than 100,000 signatures on petitions were referred to an Assembly committee, where no vote was ever taken.

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Conroy formed California War Veterans for Justice in 1983, and the following year the organization filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles challenging Hayden’s qualifications under the state Constitution.

In January, an appellate court threw the lawsuit out, saying it was “patently frivolous in contrast to simply lacking merit.” The ruling, Conroy said in an interview, was somewhat disappointing. But it only increased his resolve, he said, to force the Legislature to deal with the issue of Hayden’s presence.

Vote in Assembly

Last Monday, the issue finally came to a head on the floor of the Assembly, when members prepared to consider a motion by Ferguson that would have removed Hayden from the Legislature.

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While Ferguson made an emotional speech denouncing Hayden as “a traitor to America,” and Hayden defended himself as “a patriotic American,” Conroy sat in the back of the Assembly chamber.

Each assemblyman’s office had received a bound package of materials distributed by the VFW, which included transcripts of Hayden’s testimony before congressional committees and transcripts of Hanoi radio broadcasts that were monitored by the U.S. State Department.

“They try to make it look like I was Tokyo Rose or something,” said Hayden, referring to Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a U.S. citizen who was convicted of treason, stripped of her citizenship and imprisoned for her propaganda broadcasts from Japan during World War II.

Furthermore, Hayden said his comments were made during press conferences, not at Communist radio stations.

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The transcripts of Hayden’s comments distributed by Conroy and others are unmistakably strong anti-war statements. But nowhere are there direct calls for soldiers in the field to lay down their arms.

Harsh Words for Johnson

Indeed, Hayden’s harshest words were directed toward former President Lyndon Johnson, who, Hayden said, “doesn’t want to acknowledge the fact that 22,000 American lives have been wasted in this totally pointless war.”

Conroy insists, however, that Hayden is a traitor. In a recent newsletter, Conroy expressed hope that someday Hayden and his wife, actress Jane Fonda, “will find peace . . . in some remote spot along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and out of state government.”

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After the Assembly voted 41 to 36 to sustain Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) in his ruling that the motion to oust Hayden was improper, Conroy vowed there would be no peace for Hayden or the 40 assemblymen who supported Brown.

“Look,” Conroy said, “it’s in the Constitution. He can’t serve in this Legislature. Now, if they want to put an initiative on the ballot to change the Constitution, then fine. But that’s exactly what they have to do.”

Times staff writers Mark I. Pinsky and Lanie Jones contributed to this report.


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