<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Roscoe Bowen, general manager of Santa Ana Nissan, agreed to play a game of word association. Each time an Orange County politician was named, Bowen would respond with the first thought that popped into his head.

It was a quick exercise.

For, when confronted with such names as Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, state Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), only one word came to mind: “Nothing.”

And Bowen’s response to the whole crop of politicians who run this fair county? “Underwhelming.”


As goes Roscoe Bowen, so goes the majority of Orange County’s business leaders, according to The Times’ executive outlook survey.

When asked to name the most influential person in Orange County politics, a whopping 73% left the line blank.

Some respondents who filled out the survey and were later called for a more detailed response couldn’t even call up a political name. Others filled the blank with answers such as “the entire Board of Supervisors” or the name of a developer.

But the most overwhelming response was “nobody.”

Said Roger Tompkins, regional vice president for State Farm Insurance in Costa Mesa: “I can’t think of anyone in local politics who stands out head and shoulders above the crowd.”

Riley came in a distant second behind this phantom competition, with the support of 7% of those responding; Wieder was next with 4%; Seymour had 3%; Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) and Thomas Fuentes, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, had 2% of the vote. “Other” tied Riley with 7%.

So what’s a politician to do, faced with proof of such ineffectiveness in getting the message--or at least the name--out in the public arena?

Riley had no answer but found a shred of hope in the face of this perceived power vacuum: “Well, of all the people , I came in first.”

Fuentes saw signs of an underlying political philosophy: “I think that a lack of response is indicative of the fundamental anti-government attitude of the people of Orange County,” he said. “We as a conservative people really don’t like government, and as such we aren’t inclined to give political power to individuals in Orange County.”

But most of the business leaders interviewed about their survey responses cited other reasons, including: The county is so decentralized that no one person could possibly have any influence, and it’s really developers who run the place.

Phillip Siegel, president of Tustin-based Consolidated Micrographics, didn’t give local vote-seekers much more to cheer with his assessment.

“The more powerful people would be some of the major landowners and things like that,” Siegel said. Henry “Segerstrom would be very powerful, the O’Neills (south county landowners) and Don Bren. They’re definitely powerful and definitely have political influence, but they’re not politicians. Well, they’re politicians but not elected politicians.”

And there is a big part of the image problem. An earlier Times poll of Orange County residents found that many people believe developers wield great political influence, particularly when it comes to the key issue of growth. Of those polled, 58% said the Board of Supervisors represents developers’ interests rather than the feelings of residents when it comes to growth issues.

Gary Bart, president of Weight Watchers of Orange County, was unusual in his emphatic support of one local politico who wields more power than all others. He cast his vote for Wieder, in part because of her role as chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

But he proposed the theory that most business leaders here are so out of touch with county affairs that they believe that no one has any weight to throw in local politics, or they wouldn’t know if there was such a person.

“It’s the people’s problem,” Bart said. “How long have these business leaders been in business? How does the kind of business they do relate to Orange County politics? I know you have a lot of international firms here whose only connection with the county is that they require a business license.”

Then there is the dull theory.

Ronald M. Izumita, president of Process Oriented Design in Santa Ana, said Bergeson is the most influential politician in his eyes because she is a “very bold individual.”

And her colleagues in the electoral process? “It’s a lackluster group,” Izumita said. “If you’re gray, you stay out of trouble. That’s why I think that someone like Bergeson, who says what she means once in awhile, is really refreshing.”

Democratic Party Chairman John Hanna was a bit less diplomatic.

“Beyond Marian (Bergeson) and John (Seymour), the caliber of our congressional and state legislative delegations is just abysmal,” Hanna said. “Lackluster is a kind word.”